Throughout the summer and fall of last year, I was immersed in a novel project that has opened my eyes to the important role dietitians can play as advocates for policy change. We can help shape supportive food environments in our communities – and provide the next generation with a greater opportunity for health through food and nutrition.
In May 2016, I joined the Alberta Policy Coalition for Chronic Disease Prevention (Coalition) to aid the coordination of the Food Action in Recreation Environments Project (FARE). The project hit the ground in early 2015, with 18 member organizations committing to take collective action on a blatant yet often unspoken irony – the overwhelming presence of calorie-laden processed foods and sugary drinks in recreational facilities.
After all, recreational facilities are our new backyards - places where children and families go to play sports, learn to swim, get bundled up for a shimmy on the ice, or a leisurely skate under the stars. Yet, what are we enticed to eat once we come off the ice or out of the pool? Too often, it’s junk food with little nutrition, like chocolate bars, poutine, and pop.
FARE is working to empower communities and decision-makers to use policy as a tool to improve access to healthier food and beverages in recreational facilities and sustain community efforts over time. Since the program’s launch, momentum has been building to address this issue across Alberta!
Have you considered taking action on this issue in your community? I want to share with you a few golden threads that have been interwoven throughout my own experience: engage the community, innovate outside the box, and collaborate with others to increase your impact!
ENGAGE: Work with others to dig beneath the surface and understand the issue
INNOVATE: Be open to new communication channels to reach your audience
- Seek to understand the factors that may help to facilitate change and those that act as barriers to improving the recreation food environment in your community.
- Take time to build relationships with your community or municipality, maintain regular contact, and foster these connections over time.
- Engage recreational facility stakeholders to explore their awareness of the issue, and learn what tools and supports they would find valuable to support change. Seek feedback on these tools from the community, and be open to their ideas of how they may be used to empower action. Share these ideas widely.
- Digital media, including Twitter, Facebook, animated videos, and community challenges, can be a valuable component of your advocacy strategy.
- Project constraints may impact the funds, time, and resources you have available to devote to these communication channels. Step outside the box!
- Connecting with undergraduate students pursuing videography and graphic design who are looking for community-based experience to support your project.
- Explore free online tools for creating social media graphics (e.g. www.canva.com), free high-quality images without usage rights (e.g. www.unsplash.com), and curating social media content to tell the story of your project (e.g. www.storify).
- Pursue user-friendly online applications such as powtoon.com to produce an animated informational video to help others talk about the issue.
Make use of existing tools and resources
- Don’t reinvent the wheel. Consider other available communication tools and resources that have already been developed by others within your network and beyond.
Explore FARE’s website. It is a one-stop shop for policy tools and resources to create healthier food environments in recreational facilities. There you’ll find:
COLLABORATE: Achieve more through collective impact
- A Policy Readiness tool to identify your community or municipality’s readiness for policy change.
- Two-page briefs highlighting evidence-based strategies to promote healthy foods and beverages.
- Successful policy stories documenting the development of healthy food and beverage policies in recreation settings from jurisdictions across Canada and more.
- Identify like-minded passionate health promoters who share a common vision. Explore an opportunity to partner on your project and work towards a collective aim.
- Identify your key messages, and harness opportunities to work together to disseminate them to the community or municipality you’re working with.
Through FARE, the Coalition worked collaboratively with several member organizations, including the Alberta Parks and Recreation Association (ARPA), Alberta Health Services, Dietitians of Canada, Ever Active Schools, and the Eat Play Live Research Project. Collaboration enabled the project to draw on available resources
to support community action and implement a more comprehensive community engagement strategy. Watch a webinar
we co-presented with the ARPA, “Supporting Wellness in Recreation through Healthy Food Environments,” hosted by the Canadian Recreation and Parks Association.
Facilitating the use of policy to make healthier eating easier in recreational facilities was a strategic priority of the Coalition in 2015-2016. Work will continue in this area this year.
Policy change can be a slow and lengthy process but it is well worth the effort! Throughout my participation in this project, I had the privilege to learn about and connect with other dietitians and health promoters dedicated to addressing this issue across Canada, from British Columbia to Saskatchewan, to Newfoundland and Labrador. Making healthier eating easier in recreational facilities remains front of mind for many and there is more work to be done!
Striving to effect change on our own can be quite the feat. Instead, if we are open to engaging, innovating, and collaborating we may find a greater world of opportunity at our fingertips to break out of the mold and support lasting change.
Editor’s note: Starting in the fall of 2016, Coalition and community members were challenged to voice their support for healthier food and beverages in recreation facilities through the #HealthyRecFood Challenge on Twitter. Take a peak - and take the challenge! You can also watch this video to find out why it is important to have healthy food options in recreation facilities.
Have comments or questions for Ashley? Leave them in the comments section below!