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Digital toolkits aim to increase public health capacity in California

Health Research in Action will help local health offices with policy interventions.

Health Research for Action Center (HRA) at UC Berkeley School of Public Health has been awarded a three-year, $2.6 million grant from the California Department of Public Health—with additional funding from the US Department of Agriculture—to create three statewide digital toolkits on nutrition and physical activity, community interventions, and policy.

A fourth toolkit, on health equity, will be created by the UCLA Kaiser Permanente Center on Health Equity.

The toolkits will provide up-to-date, evidence-based information about the state of the science and best practices for interventions in the four covered areas.

“We have 61 different local health departments across the state, many at the county level, some at the city level,” said Hannah Thompson, PhD, MPH, principal investigator of the project. These are “intended for people who are working in the local health departments to use.” The toolkits will support all the health departments, and especially the smaller departments that don’t have the personnel or research capacity in the toolkit areas.

The two participating organizations will train all relevant California Department of Public Health staff and other local government officials on how to use the toolkits to create successful community interventions and policies. The USDA will additionally make the toolkits available nationally on its Food and Nutrition Service website.

The project is following a “train the trainers” model. Rather than dictating what will work from a central location, each locality can take what they need from the toolkits. The end goal is more effective local policy.

“Historically, programs have done a lot of direct and indirect education work—like cooking classes for moms, or social media campaigns, or ‘rethink your drink’ campaigns,” says Hannah Thompson, PhD, MPH, who is co-director of the project. “We are trying to make a big shift to moving more toward policy change. So instead of just telling people to drink water, [local public health officials can] make sure there are water stations in schools, remove soda machines from hospitals,” and try other direct interventions.

For example, the nutrition and physical activity toolkit will include draft wellness policy language for a school district to make sure all kids have enough time for recess.

Once completed, the toolkits will be available online.

The contract was inked in fall 2023, and the team is in the midst of doing an overall needs assessment before moving forward to creating the toolkit content, which will happen later in 2024.