case study

Working Toward Food Systems That Work for Everyone

Created by Burness for RWJF


The current food systems in the United States often leave the healthiest foods out of reach for millions of people, either because they’re not available near where a family lives, or because they’re too expensive. Many times, it’s both. For more than a decade, Burness has been working with a variety of organizations to advance food and nutrition security, prevent and reduce childhood obesity, and build equitable food systems.  

Although this work is grounded in improving access to healthy foods, it connects to so many other systems and topics. Improving food systems requires advancing health equity and clarifying the connections between a family’s economic opportunities and the foods they have access to. What people eat depends on what can be grown, which is shaped now more than ever by how our climate is changing. The decisions about our food systems should be responsive to the voice and power of community members at all levels.

Our Work on Food Systems

We have been proud to partner with grassroots leaders, advocacy organizations, researchers and national philanthropies to change programs, systems and policies in ways that make it easier for everyone to secure healthier foods and drinks for themselves and their families.  

The snapshots below provide an overview of the various issues we have worked on, and the wide variety of communications strategies and tools we have used to advance organizations’ communications goals. 

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: Since 2007, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) has committed $1 billion to prevent childhood obesity, including by increasing access to healthier foods for all children. Throughout that time period, Burness has provided broad strategic communications support to advance the Foundation’s efforts, including: communications strategy development, message development, media relations, policymaker outreach, social media strategy and execution, and spokesperson trainings. We have focused a significant part of that work on efforts to shape key federal policies like school meal programs, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in ways that advance children’s health. Over those years, school nutrition standards have gone through the most significant update in a generation, and substantial improvements and expansions have been made to WIC and SNAP as well. We are actively working with RWJF to develop approaches to Child Nutrition Reauthorization and the Farm Bill, the two most important pieces of federal legislation related to nutrition programs. Our aim is to ensure that these policy approaches are grounded in equity and can help all children be healthy and thrive. (Read additional case studies on the movement to prevent childhood obesity and on changes to SNAP.)

American Heart Association: We have provided support to the American Heart Association (AHA) to advance campaigns at the national level to enact universal school meals and make strong nutrition standards for school meals permanent. This work has included nationwide awareness and grassroots campaigns, media engagement including op-eds and earned media, and creative development and employment across multiple organic and paid platforms. 

Voices for Healthy Kids: Roughly a decade ago, RWJF saw the need to develop a more strategic approach to advancing state and local policy changes that would support access to healthy food and help to prevent childhood obesity. Burness was a partner in these conversations from the very beginning. We helped design the advocacy infrastructure, the role RWJF would play as funder, and the branding and staffing structure. We then vetted possible lead organizations and made recommendations on the finalists. RWJF ultimately decided to partner with AHA on the effort, named Voices for Healthy Kids (VHK). We then helped launch VHK at an in-person and virtual event featuring leaders in the field who were trailblazing changes ranging from sugary drink taxes to mandatory physical education. In the years since launch, we’ve worked seamlessly with VHK, building their website, training their advocates, writing their messages, helping them tell their stories and more.

Healthy Eating Research: Healthy Eating Research (HER) leads efforts to build an evidence base for strategies that help ensure all children have access to healthy, affordable food and prevent childhood obesity. Burness has served as HER’s key communications partner to help translate and promote its own research as well as studies conducted by its grantees. That work has had a strong focus on analysis of nutrition policies related to school meals, SNAP and WIC, as well as new scientific guidance on what and how children should eat and drink. The approach to promotional activities is driven by the different audiences HER wants to reach including researchers, clinicians, dieticians, advocates, policymakers, public health organizations, educators and parents. The resulting campaigns have been robust and dynamic and comprise a variety of communications activities such as lay content development including one-pagers and infographics, media outreach, policymaker and reporter briefings, social media promotion, partner engagement and influencer campaigns. 

Vital Village: Vital Village Networks supports diverse and emerging leaders who are working to create more equitable and accessible local food systems through its Community Food Systems Fellowship. Burness worked closely with Vital Village to extend the reach of their perspective on how to shift food systems, and to enable individual fellows to share their personal stories. We partnered with Diana Rivera, program manager, to include her perspective in the annual State of Childhood Obesity report published by RWJF. In addition, we interviewed 13 Community Food Systems fellows and learned about their work and lives. Short profiles of these fellows were also included in the State of Childhood Obesity report. Following the report publication, we continued our work with them to develop more detailed profiles about what inspires each fellow to improve the food systems in their community. The profiles (e.g., Steph Niaupari in DC and Ashley Rouse in Berkeley) were published as a series on both LinkedIn and Facebook. Finally, Burness led an interactive training on creating engaging social media content for the fellows and Vital Village staff and offered one-on-one coaching sessions to provide more individualized social media support to the fellows.

Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition: The Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition leads national evaluations of nutrition-focused programs to determine their impact and outcomes. In 2019, the Center became a lead evaluation partner for the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program (GusNIP) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which supports programs that provide nutrition incentives or produce prescriptions to help families bring home more fruits and vegetables. To complement the growth of its national program work, Burness partnered with the Center to develop a communications plan that would help raise the profile of both the organization and its dynamic leader, Dr. Amy Yaroch, among food and nutrition security leaders. Burness conducted an extensive landscape scan of its communications activities to date, including review of organizational materials, media and marketing material analysis, and staff and partner interviews to better understand strengths and challenges. Then we built an integrated communications plan with recommendations for development of materials to accompany evaluation reports, press outreach, social media promotion, digital content development, partner engagement and thought leadership opportunities. The Gretchen Swanson Center started implementing the plan on its own which has resulted in an enhanced social media presence as well as stronger relationships with reporters, op-ed placement(s), and opportunities for Dr. Yaroch to share the work of the Center with new audiences.

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