Starting as a founding member in 2006 and serving as backbone organization since 2019, the University of California San Diego (UCSD) Center for Community Health (CCH) within the Altman Clinical and Translational Research Institute (ACTRI) supports the San Diego County Childhood Obesity Initiative (SDCOI), the largest collective impact coalition in the country with over 400 partners across multiple sectors working to address health disparities and obesity prevention through policy, systems, and environmental change.

As the backbone organization for the SDCOI, CCH recognizes the importance of adapting and reconfiguring activities to meet emerging needs across San Diego’s underserved communities and is committed to ensuring the voice of the community is central to identifying local needs and priorities. One example of this commitment has been through CCH and the SDCOI’s leadership in addressing childhood obesity risk factors exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, including decreased healthcare access and access to safe physical activity along with increased trauma and food insecurity.

To respond to these needs, in 2020 the SDCOI and CCH partnered with the San Diego Hunger Coalition to increase awareness of and access to the newly developed Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT) program, providing EBT-based food benefits for families with eligible children who would have normally received free or reduced-price meals at school, or childcare to accommodate limitations to in-person learning. As part of this initiative, CCH, the SDCOI and the Hunger Coalition engaged in a joint effort bringing together local ethnic community-based organizations (CBOs) along with community representatives to increase awareness of and access to P-EBT. Efforts began with facilitation of a community forum in English and Spanish attended by over 100 community members and ethnic CBO organizations regarding strategies for promoting the P-EBT program with underserved communities. This resulted in the development and subsequent implementation of a new Hunger-Free Navigator Program training curriculum and initiative aimed at equipping a diverse range of residents and nonprofit staff more effectively reaching and connecting community members with food assistance resources including P-EBT benefits.

Central to the conceptualization, development, and implementation of this program was CCH and the SDCOI’s commitment to centering community voice throughout the process. To inform the need and development of the Hunger-Free Navigator Program, CCH and the SDCOI engaged community resident leaders through the SDCOI’s Community Domain to form part of the SDCOI’s first-ever Community Council group, consisting of diverse community leaders from across the county. Engagement of this Community Council group was critical in ensuring community needs and voice were centered as part of program planning and implementation.

“In response to the unique and unprecedented challenges of COVID-19, we quickly recalibrated. In partnership with the San Diego Hunger Coalition, a SDCOI member, we were able to hold space for community residents and grassroots coalitions to convene, coordinate and share lessons learned as they engaged their communities in accessing a new form of food assistance, Pandemic EBT (P-EBT).” – Eric Hekler, Ph.D., Professor and Interim Associate Dean for Community Partnerships-UCSD Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health

Through the Hunger-Free Navigator program, the San Diego Hunger Coalition awarded grants to ethnic CBOs and resident leaders for P-EBT promotion, facilitated media and social media promotion of P-EBT, and functioned as the program’s resource hub. Key partners engaged in P-EBT promotion efforts included:

  • Operation Samahan, which conducted text message and phone outreach to families across the county in English, Spanish, and Tagalog, as well as engaged local clinics, grocery outlets and restaurants among other local partners
  • Poder Popular, whose Promotoras participated in training and conducted outreach to underserved communities at local food distribution, Farmworker, and resource center sites as well as via text messages and social media
  • The City Heights Latino Council, which supported outreach including school-based outreach via flyer distribution, social media, emails, calls, text messages and other individualized communications
  • The San Diego Refugee Communities Coalition, which engaged local ethnic CBOs in program promotion via social media and outreach with refugee families in multiple languages
  • Union of Pan Asian Communities, which conducted P-EBT promotion and flyer distribution via social media as well as at diaper and food distribution events, neighborhood walks, and through their gang prevention program
  • Olivewood Gardens, which sent community health worker kitchenistas into the community to promote P-EBT through flyer distribution, newsletter messaging, text messages and social media
  • The San Diego Promotores Coalition, which engaged community members via individualized contacts and social media outreach promoting P-EBT
  • New Village Project Southeast Neighborhoods, which conducted a range of social media, text message, phone and in-person outreach promoting P-EBT

CCH as SDCOI backbone organization also secured radio spot promotion and media coverage in support of the Navigator Program.

Grounded in community perspectives, needs, and partnership, the Hunger-Free Navigator Program:

  • Successfully reached 29,000 individuals via text message and phone outreach about P-EBT
  • Reached over 30,000 community members through P-EBT social media outreach
  • Reached over 18,000 families through in-person P-EBT outreach at community locations
  • Engaged multiple media outlets including Radio Latina, Univision and Filipino newspaper in promoting P-EBT
  • Engaged local schools in promoting P-EBT with students and families
  • Translated P-EBT flyers into 16 languages to meet linguistic needs of community members who could benefit from P-EBT programming

As a result of this work, San Diego County was highlighted by the State of California as a best practice in promoting P-EBT, informing performance improvements to improve outreach and implementation of P-EBT across the state.

“In our role as the backbone organization for the San Diego County Childhood Obesity Initiative, we worked with our partners, particularly Anahid Brakke and the San Diego Hunger Coalition who co-designed and funded the efforts, to recruit and support resident leader teams in bridging gaps in communication and knowledge, to ensure all eligible families received and could use their pandemic EBT benefits at the beginning of the pandemic.” – Blanca Melendrez, MA, Executive Director, UCSD ACTRI Center for Community Health

This initiative also played a critical role in helping catalyze a continuing shift in the structure and approach of the SDCOI to center community voice and prioritize health and racial equity as underlying drivers of childhood obesity, leading to the formalization and expansion of the Community Council group within the SDCOI. This shift requires rigorous honesty requiring gaps in representation, which can help drive efforts to earn trust in underserved communities. UCSD-CCH also provided funding to community residents to take part in a set of four workshops in four languages to craft and design their definition and understanding of the Community Council within the SDCOI, in partnership with the SD County Health and Human Services Agency, YMCA, and Global Action Research Center.

Moving forward, CCH and the SDCOI aim to prioritize immersive and empowering community engagement together with the Community Council, with a long-term goal of consciously shifting power dynamics to better center community voice and priorities in the SDCOI’s advocacy, policy, and other activities. Vice Chair Nora Vargas, San Diego County Board of Supervisors, has also showcased the formation and integration of the Community Council as a model for advancing health equity, and signed on as a supervisor champion and Co-Chair of the SDCOI moving forward.


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