Twelve local government areas in Victoria’s north-east will take part in an innovative program to reduce the region’s childhood obesity rates, thanks to $4.1 million in funding announced today.

Deakin University’s Global Obesity Centre will partner with community leaders in the region to deliver the initiative, supported by a $1.5 million NHMRC Project Partnership Grant and $2.6 million in partner contributions.

The initiative – called RESPOND – will work with each of the communities in driving positive and practical changes from the ground up, to make them world leaders in promoting healthy weight among children.

Over the next five years, RESPOND will engage with 14 of the region’s health services and 116 schools, reaching more than 30,000 children aged up to 12 years.

Local government areas included in the program are Alpine, Benalla, Greater Shepparton, Indigo, Mansfield, Mitchell, Moira, Murrindindi, Strathbogie, Towong, Wangaratta and Wodonga.

Lead investigator Professor Steven Allender, Director of Deakin’s Global Obesity Centre, said RESPOND would work with communities to help them identify their own community-specific actions to create healthier food environments and get local kids more active.

“Changes will range from big to small,” Professor Allender said.

“They could include the ways organisations allocate funding, local government approaches to zoning and licensing, removal of sugar sweetened beverages from community facilities, establishing walking school buses, introducing healthy options at school canteens, or improving the availability of tap water in public settings.

“RESPOND will offer the region a cutting edge approach to support communities to successfully address the complex drivers of childhood obesity.

“The initiative includes training those working in community health and education to apply methods from ‘systems science’ to the prevention of obesity and the establishment of a childhood obesity monitoring system for evaluation.

“Ultimately it’s about encouraging a whole of community approach to create a healthy environment that helps our children get the best start to life, because our research shows that improving community capacity is a key driver of reducing childhood obesity levels.”

In Victoria, 28.6 per cent of children aged 2 to 17 are classified as either overweight or obese.

Professor Allender said it was critical to focus on providing a healthy environment for children, as this had a positive flow-on effect to the whole community.

“Children who are overweight or obese are likely to remain overweight as adults, so we need to be addressing this serious public health issue, in a preventative way, right from the start,” he said.

RESPOND will build on similar childhood obesity prevention programs being run at a community level by the Global Obesity Centre in south west Victoria, and also at a school level in the ACT.

“Some of these measures were among the first in the world to reduce the prevalence of obesity,” Professor Allender said.

“Working in the ACT school system, we showed this approach led to between 1.7 per cent and 4.9 per cent reduction of obesity in two years.

“This is the first time we’ll expand the program beyond working with a single community or school group, to look at a whole region, working at large population scale.

“Community interventions are proving their effectiveness all around the world, so this is the next evolution in this approach.”

RESPOND is supported by the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services, Victorian Department of Education and Training, VicHealth, Goulburn Valley Primary Care Partnership, Central Hume Primary Care Partnership, Upper Hume Primary Care Partnership, Lower Hume Primary Care Partnership and their member agencies.