The Journey of Voices for Healthy Kids: Changing the World by Changing with the World

Written by
Jill Birnbaum, Executive Director of Voices for Healthy Kids (2013-2018)
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An initiative that wants to change the world should be able to change with the world—and it can only do that if it is willing to challenge itself, take risks, make mistakes, and learn. 

Voices for Healthy Kids has always been that kind of initiative: open to experimenting, learning, and improving. 

When I look back on my time leading Voices for Healthy Kids as its first executive director, I feel enormous gratitude at having had such a unique and rewarding professional opportunity. 

I also remember the excitement of discovering and charting new territory with colleagues and partners who were passionate about making a real difference in kids’ health. 

A Hub for Driving State Policy 

Voices for Healthy Kids grew out of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s (RWJF) massive commitment to reverse the growing trend of childhood obesity. The Foundation sought a national partner to drive state-level policy on key issues affecting children’s health, such as improving the nutritional quality of school meals and snacks; reducing consumption of sugary beverages; increasing access to affordable, healthy foods; and expanding opportunities for physical activity. The American Heart Association (AHA) proved to be a good fit, with its national name recognition, deep policy experience, staff capacity, and network of advocacy groups in all 50 states. 

From the beginning, we worked to design new approaches to our advocacy work, and we always learned from each effort. For example, early on, we set out to introduce the initiative to local organizations through a regranting process. We assumed that because we had the money, the grant applications would pour in. All we had to do was make local, community-based organizations aware of the funding opportunity through a series of regional meetings and other outreach efforts.

It seems hard to believe now, but we did not receive many applications for our initial funding opportunities. And then we figured out why, by going out and asking: many of these small organizations did not have the infrastructure or lobbying capacity to apply for—and then administer—six-figure advocacy grants. 

Lesson learned, we overhauled our grantmaking strategy to be more flexible and accommodating to different sizes of organizations. Over the years, Voices has continued to evolve in this area, by making its grant application process easier and less time-consuming for applicants and by helping grantees build capacity to implement larger and more high-impact projects. 

Helping Local Organizations Build Power 

We also learned that some local groups had not engaged in lobbying before, and others had questions about how to do so legally. So, we held training workshops and developed resources. We made direct legal technical assistance available to all grantees through some of the best legal counsel. Many grantees have gone on to lead efforts on some of the most difficult advocacy campaigns where direct lobbying is critical, including sugary drink taxes and appropriations to provide incentives for the purchase of healthy food through SNAP.

While we have great partners that provide both financial and advocacy support aligned with the work, one of the most challenging areas we’ve encountered has been the use of preemption by state legislatures. Preemption prevents local governments from enacting and enforcing laws that powerful lobbying interests, like Big Soda and Big Tobacco, oppose. This remains a major challenge for Voices for Healthy Kids and for public health advocacy efforts. We have learned that to combat this antidemocratic use of preemption, we must build power in state legislative campaigns against preemption while building capacity and relationships, and work with local advocacy groups to enact laws and build champions at the community level. Otherwise, you will not have enough partners with real skin in the game when you face preemptive battles in state legislatures. 

Shifting to Health Equity 

When RWJF shifted its focus to health equity, we were energized by this commitment. But operationalizing equity—making it real in your everyday work—has proven to be extremely difficult. It forces you to question everything about everything you’re used to doing and why you’re doing it that particular way. 

The Foundation has been on this journey with us–connecting us with national leaders and experts who helped us learn how to operationalize equity. At the public policy level, one of the most transformational concepts I learned was the strategy of targeted universalism, in which you focus on a change for a specific population that also has benefits for the broader community. Think curb cuts for people living with disabilities. Curb cuts confer the greatest benefit on people who use wheelchairs or other mobility aids, but they also help parents with baby strollers and shoppers with grocery carts. 

This approach has informed many of Voices for Healthy Kids’ strategies for advancing policies that improve health and well-being for everyone, but especially for those who are furthest from opportunity. For example, improving access to healthy school meals and snacks is good for all kids, but it’s especially valuable for kids whose families have difficulty affording healthy food on a consistent basis. Targeted universalism also helped us think differently about how to build coalitions for moving certain policies and being more inclusive; it even affected how we made certain kinds of grants. 

A Never-Ending Journey 

There is a lot more to operationalizing equity than one policy strategy. In recent years, Voices for Healthy Kids has made remarkable progress in building community voice and inclusion into its grantmaking process and in working to become an antiracist initiative. 

It is a never-ending journey—which is important for an initiative like ours, on a quest to learn how to improve and make life healthier for all children. And as it continues to learn, Voices for Healthy Kids continues to evolve to meet the needs of a changing world. I am grateful to have been an early part of this important effort.

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