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Systems thinking in 49 communities related to healthy eating, active living, and childhood obesity.

Abstract

Through half-day group model-building sessions conducted as part of evaluation site visits to each community between 2010 and 2013, a total of 50 causal loop diagrams were produced for 49 communities (1 community had 2 causal loop diagrams representing different geographic regions). The analysis focused on the following evaluation questions: (1) What were the most prominent variables in the causal loop diagrams across communities? (2) What were the major feedback structures across communities? (3) What implications from the synthesized causal loop diagram can be translated to policy makers, practitioners, evaluators, funders, and other community representatives?

Community partnerships to promote healthy eating and active living in order to prevent childhood obesity face a number of challenges. Systems science tools combined with group model-building techniques offer promising methods that use transdisciplinary team-based approaches to improve understanding of the complexity of the obesity epidemic. This article presents evaluation methods and findings from 49 Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities sites funded to implement policy, system, and environmental changes from 2008 to 2014.

The application of systems thinking tools combined with group model-building techniques creates opportunities to define and characterize complex systems in a manner that draws on the authentic voice of residents and community partners.

A total of 590 individuals participated with an average of 12 participants per session. Participants' causal loop diagrams included a total of 227 unique variables in the following major subsystems: healthy eating policies and environments, active living policies and environments, health and health behaviors, partnership and community capacity, and social determinants. In a synthesized causal loop diagram representing variables identified by at least 20% of the communities, many feedback structures emerged and several themes are highlighted with respect to implications for policy and practice as well as assessment and evaluation.

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