Community Environment – Overview

This section includes a survey and an audit that will help you assess how the environment affects the eating and physical activity habits of people in your community. Each piece could be used alone, but if used together they will give you a broad understanding of the resources and the environment in your community. The survey and audit have proven useful in practice and have been refined through use. From the perspective of physical activity and nutritional health, the environment consists of all physical and social factors that influence activity levels and food intake. These include building architecture and elements of community design, such as walking paths and location of retail centers, that determine how often people walk or bike. Other key environmental factors are the social norms that affect behaviors; the availability of nutrition and physical activity services; government, workplace and corporate policies that govern what food is available; and policies that influence the physical activity levels of adults and children. Because by definition environment is everything that surrounds you, a list of things that make up the physical activity and nutrition environment can never be exhaustive. Research shows that such environmental factors have powerful effects on behavior. For example:


  • In neighborhoods where through streets directly connect destinations, people walk up to three times more frequently than they do where streets are twisted like spaghetti – where there are few access points outside of the neighborhood and many streets end in cul-de-sacs (Local Government Commission).
  • People will be more physically active if walking trails are created, exercise facilities are built, or if access is improved to existing nearby facilities (Task Force on Community Preventive Services 2001).
  • Young people are more likely to be active if they have access to convenient play spaces including school facilities (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 1997).
  • The existence of walking clubs gets people physically active and improves their fitness level (Task Force on Community Preventive Services 2001).
  • The presence of soda machines in schools increases soda consumption (Grimm et al. 2004).
  • Using local fresh foods increases school meal participation and increases consumption of salad and other vegetables (Ralston et al. 2003).
  • Proximity to quick serve restaurants increases household consumption.
  • The presence of a supermarket in a neighborhood increases fruit and vegetable intake (Morland et al. 2002).


Assessing the community environment to determine it’s impact on a population’s eating and physical activity habits is relatively new. By conducting the “Programs, Services, Policies and Environment Survey” and the “Built Environment and Social Environment Audit” you will begin to understand this new area of interest, and it should affect the interventions you develop.


Programs, Services, Policies, and Environment Survey. By conducting this survey you will learn about the nutrition and physical activity services available in your community. This survey includes questions about traditional nutrition and physical activity programs, and it asks questions about the built environment and organizational policies that affect healthy eating and physical activity.


Built Environment and Social Environment Audit.This audit is an informal evaluation of your community to help you identify ways that the community supports eating healthy foods and being physically active and ways that the community hinders healthy eating and physical activity. For example, from this audit you could learn that your community has several parks all connected by a paved walking and biking trail, but utilization is abysmally poor. Or, you might discover that the faith community in your area is starting to promote serving healthy foods at all events and some of the African American churches are using the Body&Soul program which empowers church members to eat 5 cups of fruit and vegetables a day.


Community Resources and Environment Log. Use these log sheets to compile what you learn by conducting the Programs, Services, Policies, and Environment Survey and the Built Environment and Social Environment Audit. Community Environment Summary Sheet. Use this page to summarize your findings. Keep in mind that you are not prioritizing at this point.


  Programs, Services, Policies and Environment Survey : Discover the nutrition and physical activity services in your community

  Built Environment and Social Environment Audit : Find out how much your community structure supports healthy eating and being physically active

  Community Resources and Environment Log : Use this log sheet to compile the information about nutrition and physical activity programs, services, policies and the environment

  Community Environment Summary Sheet : Summarize what you’ve learned about your community resources and its environment

   Healthy Food and Beverage Tip Sheet : This tip sheet contains some ideas to help your team define “healthy”




People work together in a number of ways, in coalitions, partnerships, committees, teams, task forces, and so on. The tools in Moving to the Future will help you no matter how your group is structured. To make Moving to the Future friendly to people working together in different ways, we use these group terms interchangeably. So, if you are working in a formal committee and Moving to the Future uses the word team, the information applies to you as well.


In Moving to the Future, the word program is defined broadly and could encompass any group of activities including projects, services, programs, and policy or environmental changes.

Nutrition and Physical Activity

In Moving to the Future, we often pair the wordnutrition with the phrase physical activity, as for example in “address the nutrition and physical activity needs” or “develop a nutrition and physical activity plan.” This does not suggest that these materials are only useful to people working on community-based nutrition AND physical activity programs. You can use the Moving to the Future resources to develop a plan focused only on nutrition or a plan focused only on physical activity. Moving to the Future provides guidance on a process–not on content. In fact, these materials could be adapted and used to develop a teen pregnancy prevention plan, for example, or a plan for any other community health priority.

Be Flexible & Realistic

Moving to the Future principles Flexible and Realistic are the bywords of this approach. The intent of Moving to the Future is to provide guidance. Use what is helpful and modify materials to meet your needs. Planning and implementing community-based programs is not work that can be done perfectly. Do the best you can, given your real-world limitations, and commit to making improvements every year.