County has Nationally-Recognized Recipe for Combating Childhood Obesity

Systems change. Innovation zone.  Multi-sector approach.  It all sounds very bureaucratic.

But when you add them all together, they’re the recipe for a successful San Diego County Childhood Obesity Initiative (COI) and its work with the County Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA). It’s now a model for the rest of the nation.

In an era of growing concern about childhood obesity, San Diego County is bucking the trend and has actually seen a decline in childhood obesity rates. Those positive results have drawn the attention of the federal government and put the spotlight on our region.

“The rates of childhood obesity in San Diego County have been decreasing since 2005,” said Dr. Don Wright, director, Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion at the United States Department of Health & Human Services. “We’ve been privileged to learn from leaders in San Diego how they are collaborating and innovating, the challenges they faced and what they’re doing that really works.”

The COI’s efforts have become the basis for a Healthy People 2020 eLearning lesson for health agencies and community leaders across the country. The online course is called “Defining Success in a Systems Approach: The San Diego County Childhood Obesity Initiative.”

“We have a track record and a reputation as being a region of innovation,” said Dr. Nick Yphantides, HHSA Chief Medical Officer. “The COI is a really good example of a public-private partnership.

“We have a pretty comprehensive partnership happening between the County HHSA as a local government and a lot of community partners.”

County Supervisor Ron Roberts and former Supervisor Pam Slater-Price made it a priority for the County to create the Childhood Obesity Action Plan in 2000, setting in motion the creation of the COI.

“The work of the County Childhood Obesity Initiative is a testament to the impact a private-public partnership can have on making a positive difference in people’s lives,” said Roberts. “Local governments, school officials, business owners, faith leaders and community members have strategically joined forces and we’ve actually seen a decrease in childhood obesity rates in our County since 2005.”

In 2005 more than 1 in 4 fifth, seventh and ninth graders in SD County was overweight or obese. By 2010, that number had dropped by 3.7%. That was the largest decrease of any county in Southern California and the largest drop among the most populous counties in the state.

“It may be too early to call that a trend, but we’re very excited about this,” said Cheryl Moder, director of the COI which is supported by the Community Health Improvement Partners. “HHSA has leveraged those results to receive millions of dollars in funding.

“It’s fairly well established that it was the work we did with COI and that we have such a strong foundation here that it led to those grants.”

That strong foundation and the County’s Live Well, San Diego! initiative caught the attention of federal officials.

“We have a lot of strategic and innovative things going on in San Diego County, and we’re often referenced as an example of best practices,” said Yphantides.

Dr. Howard Koh, U.S. assistant secretary for health, visited our region and took note of what was happening in the fight against childhood obesity here and then his staff asked for more information.

Soon after that visit, Yphantides, HHSA Director Nick Macchione and County Public Health Officer Dr. Wilma Wooten went to Washington, D.C., for the National Public Health Association conference and held follow-up meetings with federal officials.

“One in 100 Americans lives in San Diego County and that’s a big environment to test and promote different initiatives,” said Yphantides. “When you look at what we do for three million people – that’s a big county – and they thought ‘if they can do it, we can do it as well.’”

The fact that our county is a mix of urban, suburban, rural and agricultural land as well as being geographically unique – bordered by a military base, the ocean, Mexico and desert and  mountains – also makes it an ideal testing ground.

San Diego County staff was asked to be a demonstration site for the Healthy People eLearning project. The online program takes a behind-the-scenes look at COI and how it’s achieving the reduction in childhood obesity rates through collaborations with community partners.

“It’s not just the online learning tool,” said Yphantides. “There’s a lot of interest and coverage related to the work we’re doing in San Diego County and there will be more coming.”

Moder agreed.

“The eLearning lesson is just one of a series of activities that developed as a result of COI,” she said. “This has and will continue to bring attention to the work we’ve been doing here in San Diego County.”

Tom Christensen is a communications specialist with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact