use civil rights law to promote the construction of parks and playgrounds and enforce physical education standards in schools.
Public Health Law and Policy is a nonprofit organization that works to improve community health by building the capacity of public health leaders to use legal and policy tools in their everyday practice. The organization consists of a multidisciplinary team of lawyers, urban planners, and policy analysts, many of whom also have advanced training in public health. “We are very much a behind-the-scenes group, doing legal analysis and policy development,” said Marice Ashe, the organization’s executive director. “We then train local leaders, whether they are public health leaders, elected officials, or municipal attorneys, so that they can take these materials and adapt them to the best use in their communities.”
Ashe focused on the organization’s work on physical activity, although it also addresses many other topics. Increasing the amount of physical activity among children is a complex and difficult task, she said. It depends on such varied policy dimensions as land use zoning, transportation planning, and educational initiatives. For example, the zoning of local communities has a marked influence on the foods that are available to residents. Research shows that low-income communities have four times more access to unhealthy than to healthy food options. Food outlets that lack access to fresh foods such as fruits and vegetables are abundant in low-income communities and communities of color, said Ashe, where the childhood obesity epidemic is most prevalent.
Transportation offerings also can influence health. Investing in freeways rather than biking and walking trails and mass transit is likely to contribute significantly to obesity. These are political decisions that are made at the highest levels of government and flow down to the regional and local levels, said Ashe.
Finally, the use of public spaces can have an influence on health. For example, in many communities, playgrounds are locked up once school ends, even though playgrounds often are the safest place to play in those communities. Ashe argued that these are public resources that school officials have decided to close off to community use, and this is a situation that can be changed. Already, said Ashe, more than half of children do not meet the national standard of 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day, and a growing body of evidence indicates that this lack of physical activity affects cognition and academic performance as well as obesity. Schools have instituted standards for academic performance, but many have dropped recess and provide much less physical education so they can devote more