Six health departments from across the Denver areas have come together to tackle soda consumption. Photo by Don Bayley/ courtesy iStockphoto

Six health departments from across the Denver area have come together to tackle soda consumption. Photo by Don Bayley/courtesy iStockphoto

Because problems like overweight and obesity don’t respect county borders, public health agencies are finding more ways to work together.

An example: the Denver area Metro Healthy Beverage Partnership that’s already had success in raising awareness about sugary beverage consumption and is helping local communities change their unhealthy ways.

That’s not to say it’s been easy.

The partnership formed in 2013 after six health departments (which cover seven Denver area counties and more than half the population of Colorado) decided to zero in on obesity and the risk factor of sugary beverage consumption as a priority.

“I must say, I thought, writing a grant across six health departments, that’s going to be like herding cats,” said John Douglas, director of the Tri-County Health Department. But focusing on a common goal has proven easier than he expected, he told Annual Meeting attendees during a Wednesday session “A Collective Impact Approach to Reducing Sugary Beverage Consumption in Denver Metro.”

Douglas reminded audience members that Public Health 3.0 calls on public health leaders to embrace the role of chief health strategist.

“Being able to work together on this collaboration has been an extraordinary learning laboratory of what that should look like,” he said.

The partnership’s shared goal has helped members work more closely together and effectively get the word out about “making the healthy choice the default choice,” said Maria Smith, partnership coordinator for Denver Public Health.

Some early successes include passage of a Healthy Events and Meetings Policy for all the agencies that are part of the partnership. The policy includes recommendations that water be served at meetings, that sugary beverages not be purchased with organizational funds and that for meetings lasting more than one hour, participants take a stretch break.

“We really thought it was important to walk the talk and go through the process we were asking our community partners to do,” said Allison Wilson of Jefferson County Public Health. She encouraged attendees to check out the Healthy Beverage Partnership Policy Toolkit to learn more about replicating the effort in their local communities.

The partnership has also drafted a healthy vending policy and evaluated the proportion of healthier beverage and snack options in vending machines in parts of the region. For instance, in the city of Westminster, which has a population of about 111,000 and spans two Colorado counties, the partnership conducted 43 vending assessments at 12 city locations. They’ve worked with the city recreation director and employee wellness director to make all city vending machines stock healthier choices.

The next two years of the partnership’s three-year grant-funded efforts will focus on getting healthier vending and meeting policies adopted and implemented throughout the Denver metro area.

“We do think we have got the potential — certainly not yet the reality — of moving the needle on obesity and overweight,” Douglas said.