Partner Spotlight: The Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity Prevention at SC DHEC

We recently caught up with Lori Phillips, director of the Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity Prevention (DNPAO) at the SC Department of Health and Environmental Control. Historically, SCDHEC founded the coalition that became Wholespire and DNPAO has been a long-standing partner. Their partnership and shared vision have contributed to the growth and recognition of policy, systems and environmental change strategies as a foundation of community health improvement across South Carolina.

Question: What is DNPAO and what does it do?
Answer: The Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity Prevention (DNPAO) aims to support equitable opportunities for healthy eating and active living statewide through the facilitation of collective state-level actions. It serves as the state arm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity and a bridge between national nutrition and physical activity best practices and state and local actions.

DNPAO strategies include:

  • Improving early care and education and school environments to support healthy eating and active living
  • Improving student health through the implementation of a statewide, web-based FitnessGram system
  • Engaging partners to guide state-wide healthy eating, active living, and healthy weight efforts

Question: You’ve been the director for quite a while. Can you tell us how the DNPAO and its work have evolved over the years?
Answer: I have served in the director role since 2013. The division’s evolution has predominantly been driven by funding changes over the years. In the past, the division received substantial federal funding which sustained a team of 10 staff with specific subject matter expertise. When this federal funding was cut in 2018, the division was down-sized to focus on nutrition, physical activity, and obesity prevention in the main settings where children spend time – in communities and early care and education and school systems. The division was funded by the state legislature in 2023 to sustain these efforts as well as to maintain the SC FitnessGram system and to serve as a backbone organization (along with Wholespire) for Healthy Palmetto.

Question: Your division and Wholespire are co-leaders of Healthy Palmetto. Will you explain what Healthy Palmetto is and how it’s work is impacting community health improvement?
Answer: South Carolina has had a state obesity plan since 2005. In 2019, the previous plan was wrapping up and key state stakeholders were convened to determine a path forward. It was determined that creating environments and systems that support healthy eating and active living throughout South Carolina is important for the future health of the state. So, Healthy Palmetto was established in 2020 with a commitment to serve as the state lead coalition of organizations responsible for collectively addressing healthy eating, active living, and healthy weight within the Live Healthy SC State Health Improvement Plan.

Healthy Palmetto supports healthy eating and active living priorities that would benefit from collective elevation. This includes creating space for partner organizations to share resources and connect with other state-level leaders, developing and disseminating collective communication assets, tracking the progress of priority measures, and blending funding for greater impact.

Healthy Palmetto is serving as the lead for the 2025-2030 State Health Improvement Plan Health Behaviors Work Group and planning is currently underway to determine strategies for the next five years. Although Healthy Palmetto focuses on state-level population strategies to improve nutrition and physical activity, there is a role for everyone to play. Local stakeholders can implement the Healthy Palmetto priority strategies and can connect with state-level leaders in each of the priority areas for assistance. Healthy Palmetto provides infrastructure for organizations to work towards common goals collectively.

You can find more information on the impacts that Healthy Palmetto has seen in the 2023 Healthy Palmetto Annual Report.

Question: SCDHEC is preparing for a new name and a new brand. How will this transition impact the division, the work and its partnerships?  
Answer: Yes, as of July 1, 2024, DNPAO will be housed within the SC Department of Public Health. While there will be name changes and perhaps some structural changes internally, this should not impact DNPAO’s work or its partnerships. The work that we do is long-term in nature and we are thankful that we can continue contributing to a healthier South Carolina.

Question: What do you think has made Wholespire a good partner?
Answer: DNPAO was a catalyst to establish the original organization that is now Wholespire. While I was not director at that time, it is my understanding that the impetus for that was to create opportunities for a public-private partnership to spearhead and lead the state’s obesity prevention efforts. Although there have been major changes in both DNPAO and Wholespire over the years, I believe this original intent continues to serve the state positively.

Wholespire serves a role that state agencies cannot in that it can be more flexible and fluid. Wholespire is a leader in advocacy and communication for healthy eating and active living and community health overall. Wholespire also provides direct technical assistance for local stakeholders. The work that Wholespire does complements DNPAO’s work and together we can have greater impact.

Question: Would you like to share any other important details about DNPAO?
Answer: DNPAO is a small team with over 65 years of combined experience and subject matter expertise in nutrition and physical activity best practices, specifically within early care and education, schools, and communities. Please reach out if you think we can help you. We are always open to connect people to the appropriate resources or partners to make South Carolina a healthier state.