Nearly one in four Colorado high school students did not graduate last year. More than 840,000 Coloradans are not able to afford healthy, nutritious food. Thirteen percent of Coloradans live in poverty. Almost half of Colorado residents spend more than 30% of their income on rent and utilities.
When I look at these statistics, I feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of “wicked” problems, or intractable social issues, that we still face as a state, despite years of policy interventions and public investment. These problems are not limited to just one area of policy; they are problems that affect every sector and every area of the state, and—importantly—they are all connected to our health. For example, students who excel in school tend to be healthier, and healthier students learn better. Families who are able to earn more stable incomes can afford healthier lifestyles, such as healthier food and better housing. Decisions we make for the housing sector, the education sector, or the general economy all affect the health of our residents, and in turn, the health of our residents affects our ability as a state to excel in each of these issue areas. If we want a robust and thriving economy in Colorado, we must ensure that health is included in all our policy decisions—not just the ones we make about the health sector.
One such initiative that is gaining attention in communities around the country is Health in All Policies, which incorporates health considerations into collaborative decision-making across sectors and policy areas. By working with a broader group of decision makers or better connecting our policy decisions to a common vision, we can access the shared benefits of a more collaborative approach and theoretically see more progress. By shifting the paradigm, our investments go farther and have more widespread impact. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship: population health is improved by policies developed by other sectors, and improved health supports the achievement of those sectors’ goals.
The healthy food in schools movement (or “farm-to-school” movement) has been one example of such a cross-sectorial approach. Rising childhood obesity rates was of great concern, especially since it is widely understood that children who are healthy during their most formative years become healthier adults and healthy children learn better and become better-educated adults. As children spend most of their days in school, it made sense to provide easier access to healthy foods. In some areas of Colorado, schools have built relationships with local farmers to facilitate access to healthy foods for the students, which has also become a fruitful business partnership for local agriculture.
We have tried to solve these complex problems by pursuing separate agendas within each policy sector; however, since so many of the social problems we grapple with overlap at a common nexus—health—we should consider addressing problems in a more coordinated way. Instead of being overwhelmed by the complexity and disheartening data, we should use this is as an opportunity to work with new partners, make smarter investments, and make a bigger impact.