Policy Working Group
When it comes to fighting global obesity, some of the greatest potential lies at the policy level.
Whether from a municipal, state, federal or international level, decision and policy makers are among the best positioned to enact change and promote better health. But it’s hard to solve a problem without a comprehensive understanding of it.
And obesity is a complicated problem.
Designed to provide guidance and assistance to nutritional leaders around Baltimore City, the Policy-Level Working Group plays a key role in the efforts of the Global Obesity Prevention Center at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. “We want to engage and facilitate communications and interactions with key stakeholders in the obesity landscape, in hopes of promoting a healthier food environment in Baltimore City,” says Joel Gittelsohn, PhD, director of BeMore Healthy: Communities for Kids, under which the policy group operates. “We want to integrate systems science modeling to inform stakeholders about how they can improve nutrition and decrease obesity throughout their communities.”
Modeling, in fact, plays a key role in the policy group’s efforts—agent based models in particular. This kind of computational model is designed to represent individual entities (or “agents”) to represent the people or organizations of specific societies or communities. In the obesity research field, ABMs have been used to evaluate a range of factors and trends, including:
- The effects of social norms on diet and physical activity
- The relationships between income inequalities, residential segregation and healthy eating
- The effects of economic change on social and physiological processes
Working with computer simulation and modeling experts, the policy working group has created one of the first such models designed for policy makers to use to address obesity in a specific setting or community. The hope, Gittelsohn says, is to assist the city’s efforts in monitoring and curbing obesity around Baltimore by accurately depicting crucial aspects of the food environment in low-income Baltimore communities.
The model includes names and GIS coordinates for several hundred food sources—including corner stores and carryouts, as well as schools and recreation centers. It also includes more than 200 children between ages 10 and 14 years, taking into account characteristics such as age, sex, BMI and dietary habits, among other factors. The model can be adapted over time so that future versions can take into account additional data and be used to test specific proposed polities, whether in Baltimore City or another location elsewhere.
In addition to GOPC members, the policy group includes collaborators from across the Baltimore City health and nutrition landscape, including representatives from the City Council, the Health Department, Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Baltimore City Schools and local stores and carryouts. “Working at the policy level is crucial to curbing obesity,” Gittelsohn says. “We’re want to show decision makers that, by making certain policy or regulatory changes, they can improve the healthiness of their communities.”