Science-Based Food Policies: What Works, What Doesn’t

Creating meaningful and relevant research-based food policies was the topic of a recent talk with policy and nutrition experts from across the United States. Each attended the Global Summit on Food Security, organized by Kellogg Fellows Leadership Alliance (KFLA) and supported by W.K. Kellogg Foundation, with media sponsorship provided by Food Tank.

Among the attendees at the KFLA Global Summit was Lorrene Ritchie, PhD, RD.

Dr. Ritchie is the inaugural Director of Nutrition Policy Institute (NPI) and Cooperative Extension Specialist in University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources. NPI’s mission is to improve nutrition and reduce obesity, hunger and chronic diseases in children and families. Dr. Ritchie has devoted her career to developing interdisciplinary, science-based and culturally relevant solutions to child obesity. She has researched the impact of nutrition policies and federal, state and community-level programs.

Dr. Lorrene Ritchie. Credit Michael Schwarz.

Dr. Ritchie kindly agreed to discuss science-based food policies and provide these comments.


How can research-driven solutions better direct healthy food policies?

“Through dozens of research projects at NPI designed to inform policy and environmental change, we’ve learned that it takes partnerships.

As researchers, we know a lot about study design, data collection and analysis, and dissemination of results to other researchers. We know much less about how to present that information to decision makers and policy makers. The way we have had the most impact with our research getting into the hands of legislators and decision maker has been by working with advocacy organizations.

For example, our collaboration with California Food Policy Advocates has been incredibly productive. Ten years ago, they came to us saying, ‘We want to do more work in childcare. We think the youngest children are the ones to reach.’ Our researchers had been studying this area. We knew by the time kids get into kindergarten, over one in five are already overweight and obese. Their nutrition habits are largely established. We knew we should be focusing more attention on younger kids. Ideally, we should be starting even before birth.

These advocates asked, ‘What’s nutrition like in childcare?’ In 2008, nobody knew much about this topic. There had been almost no studies of what the nutrition environment was like in childcare. So, we did the first statewide survey in California. The short answer is that in childcare there’s lots of room for improvement. Using that connection with the advocates, we developed a model for how to disseminate our research to have impact.

The process involves not just having quantitative data, where there are lots of numbers and statistics. Decision makers want numbers. But we also married that with qualitative research. So, we had the stories as well. As much as we love data, as scientists and decision makers, we also want to hear the voices of our constituents. Policymakers especially can be moved to action by those stories. They want to hear from people’s hearts how a new policy or program will impact them.

Another key component is to invite stakeholders to the table. Invite the people who operated childcare programs at state and local levels, who were the changemakers and influencers, who could actually make child care nutrition changes happen. Instead of us academics saying we think you should do this, we really need the help of the people on the ground to identify the next policy steps. Therefore, we presented both the quantitative and qualitative data we had collected and we asked them to tell us the solutions. In our experience this approach has made change happen a lot more easily.”


What are some of the biggest obstacles?

“Language can be a challenge.

When we started with California Food Policy Advocates, we had to learn each other’s lingo. Not just words, but how we viewed things. For example, as a researcher, I can tell you what we’ve learned after a study. But I will always follow with ‘but’.

But … we don’t know if this applies to other populations. But …. we don’t know if this relationship will translate into other contexts. That’s not what an advocate necessarily wants to hear. They prefer a simpler sound bite.

Another obstacle is time.

In my world, we have a hypothesis. We do a literature review. We generate research questions. We write a grant proposal. We get funded and get a contract in place. We design the protocols. We pilot test the protocols. We collect the data. We clean the data. We analyze the data. We write up the results. We’re usually talking several years of work.

But advocates are on different timelines. Who knows when decision makers will get reelected or onto the next hot topic? They have to move quickly. We had to learn to not only speak each other’s language, but coordinate with each other’s timelines.

For example, I might start a study but the final results may not be published for several years. That’s a long time for advocates to wait. We had to learn to write research briefs, so we could provide enough sound information that they could use, but we could still publish. As academics, our currency is publishing. In this way we are able to give them the data they need without sacrificing our ability to publish.”


Can you discuss the importance of community support?

“Our approach is to invite them to suggest the solutions.

The value is not only that the community is already supportive of the idea, but the community is much better at knowing what they need and what they can do. It becomes a cycle. We feed each other, as opposed to a disjointed and siloed way of doing things.”


What gives you hope?


“We’ve been doing this work in the context of huge amounts of social and political change. What gives me hope is that I’ve seen a new rise and interest in civic participation.

We have to break down the walls between science and politics. Everything involves politics, and everything involves science and evidence. You hope that all policy is based on information gathered credibly and rigorously.

We have young people coming into research saying, ‘We want to be changemakers.’ When I went to graduate school, I was not taught how to write a policy brief. The concept of putting my data into a policy format and intentionally using it to inform policy was a foreign one.

But the next generation of researchers is better equipped to do this. They are engaged already and focused on the bigger picture. They are thinking, ‘Yes, I can be a changemaker. I want my data to create change.’ That gives me tremendous hope.”


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This original piece was commissioned by the Kellogg Fellows Leadership Alliance and written by author Teresa O’Connor.