By Adam Becker, PhD, MPH
Executive Director, Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children
As we emerge from a year of unprecedented challenges and look forward to our plans for 2021, we at CLOCC first and foremost offer our sympathy and condolences to those who have lost a loved one during – or because of – the Coronavirus pandemic and have had to cope with that loss without the healing closeness of family and friends. You are in our thoughts.
As the global COVID-19 pandemic first took hold, it seemed that a focus on childhood obesity would be pushed to the margins of our local and national agendas. Yet, as data emerged about the virus, its consequences, and the inequities related to both infection and resulting illness, it became quickly apparent that the obesity epidemic and the global pandemic were intrinsically linked. Obesity is understood to be one of the most, significant risk factors for serious illness or death resulting from COVID-19. What’s more, the same upstream factors that contribute to inequities in obesity prevalence (structural racism, poverty, poor access to health and social services) were clearly also driving inequities in COVID-19 rates. Our concern that COVID-19 mitigation efforts would require that we put CLOCC’s obesity-prevention work on hold soon evolved into an understanding that we had to redouble our efforts. Our network would be called up on to support constituents’ ability to eat healthy and stay active when the economy, the food system, and the institutions that serve children (schools, childcare, parks) were shutting down.
I have been immensely impressed by the resilience demonstrated across our network in 2020. Partners, staff, colleagues, funders and other stakeholders have exhibited boundless flexibility and furious determination in responding to the pandemic. I look forward to the day when, with the pandemic in the rearview mirror, we can reflect upon and celebrate the immeasurable examples of our public health field rising to this inauspicious occasion and adapting to meet the COVID-19 challenges that shook our city, our state, and our nation.
Early in the pandemic, CLOCC staff surveyed the network to develop an understanding of partner needs and concerns as we adjusted to our new realities. Based on that feedback, we added a COVID-19 resources section to our bi-weekly newsletter, followed soon thereafter by “CLOCC – Healthy at Home,” a collection of health and wellness tips based on 5-4-3-2-1 Go!® and promoted via social media and the newsletter. Our Kohl’s Cares®-funded work in and around Chicago Park District summer camps in the city’s south and west sides was expanded to include “Stay Fit Kits” that could be distributed to local families and used to support physical activity and nutrition at home. As Chicago Public Schools continued with remote learning, we took the step of creating “CLOCC – Healthy at Home for CPS” – a comprehensive library of online tools and health resources, cultivated to assist educators with supporting their students’ food and physical activity needs through the pandemic.
COVID-19 wasn’t our only driver of change as a staff in 2020. Midway through the year, we were proud to announce that CLOCC would be a founding member of Lurie Children’s Hospital’s new Patrick M. Magoon Institute for Healthy Communities. As the hub for Lurie Children’s community-based initiatives, the Magoon Institute’s diverse roster of programs is focused on health equity, population health, prevention, and advocacy. The Magoon Institute’s formation was certainly timely. In addition to the pandemic, the degree to which systemic racism and bias has affected this country’s Black communities became eminently clearer as we saw video after video of police brutality against black individuals, followed by examples of police violence enacted upon peaceful protestors of that brutality. The anger and chaos spilled into local streets, and the response caused many of the already-scarce healthy food and physical activity resources in Chicago neighborhoods to close, in some cases permanently.
For several years, we have been working as an organization to identify and define social influencers of health (SIOH) and their connection to obesity. This too became incredibly timely work. Together we developed conceptual models that combined scientific literature and evidence with community lived experience to illustrate the connections between mental health, immigration status, housing, racism and childhood obesity. Our staff remains committed to framing CLOCC’s future work in the context of health equity and looks forward to collaborating with other Magoon Institute programs as we strive to create healthy places for Chicago’s families to live, learn and play.
So, what lies ahead in 2021? First, we will be developing fact sheets to summarize the conceptual models that illustrate the connections between upstream root causes, downstream effects on nutrition and physical activity, and obesity. Our goal is to provide these fact sheets to the CLOCC network to help partners make the case to their funders, elected officials, Boards of Directors, and constituents that addressing social influencers of health and preventing obesity are both imperative to improving the health and wellbeing of communities – especially those that have been hardest hit by the “triple pandemic” of racial injustice, economic crisis, and COVID-19. As local systems struggle with decisions about re-opening , we remain committed to supporting them in providing resources and information to children and their families to support healthy eating and physical activity in the absence of a structured school day. We are excited to be developing new curricula to support the integration of 5-4-3-2-1 Go! into virtual and in-person educational contexts, with an emphasis on out-of-school-time programs and a focus on older youth, among whom obesity rates continue to climb. We will be modernizing and digitizing our Neighborhood Walkability and Accessibility Assessment Tool to meet the technological needs of communities interested in examining and addressing the factors that make walking and other forms of active transportation challenging. Tying these efforts together, we will be leading and joining advocacy efforts to pursue the priorities laid out in our 2021-2025 Policy Agenda, released in December 2020.
We look forward to continued, enhanced work with the ever-growing CLOCC network and to welcoming new partners as our efforts expand to address factors that contribute to obesity at all levels – from achieving racial justice to improving food and physical activity access in communities, to educating and motivating children and their families to eat healthy and stay active. We look forward to the new and effective COVID-19 vaccines being equitably distributed to vast majorities of our communities so that we can once again come together in person to advance our collective mission of preventing childhood obesity with an equity lens.
So, I hope you will join me in a virtual “cheers” to a happier, healthier, safer, and more equitable 2021! As always, CLOCC staff is here to help and to hear what your hopes and needs are for obesity prevention in the coming year.