Skip to Content

Gimme Five: Manel Kappagoda


This week we chatted with Manel Kappagoda of ChangeLab Solutions about her diverse policy and grassroots experience in working with childhood obesity issues. Keep reading to get to know Manel, and then connect with her through her profile.

Name: Manel Kappagoda
Title: Project Director and Senior Staff Attorney
Organization: ChangeLab Solutions

What inspired you to start working on childhood obesity?

Before moving into childhood obesity prevention policy, I was a legal aid attorney serving clients living with HIV/AIDS. I wanted to address the systemic causes of health inequities because my years working in legal aid had demonstrated to me how hard it is to solve societal problems by responding on an individual level—the system is rigged against that approach. My passion for addressing health inequities led me to childhood obesity prevention, where these disparities are such a large piece of the national and global picture. Now, I work on using social policy to address childhood obesity’s causes and, hopefully, help communities effect positive change!

How are you helping to reverse childhood obesity?

ChangeLab Solutions’ mission is to help communities achieve good health outcomes, and I support that by working closely with community leaders to help them institute healthy eating and active living policies. These inspiring advocates know what they want to do to improve community health. I help them understand the legal and policy environment so they can be as effective as possible. If you want to open up your local school yard for community recreation, we can give you a model shared use agreement and help you with implementation. If you’d like to encourage healthier kids’ meals in your community, we have a model policy that sets standards for kids’ meals in restaurants. I do much of my work through The National Policy and Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity (NPLAN), our Robert Wood Johnson Foundation-funded program that provides technical assistance to communities that are trying to put healthy policies in place. It’s very rewarding to be able to support the people in the field who are pushing for healthy changes at the local and state level. 

 What’s your biggest accomplishment so far in helping reduce childhood obesity?

It’s hard to think of an individual accomplishment because we work in teams and with many partners and stakeholders. Over the past six years, I worked with our CEO, Marice Ashe, to launch and then sustain NPLAN. We have supported efforts in communities in all 50 states and provided technical assistance on many cutting-edge issues. I’m proud of the assistance we’ve been able to provide to local champions and policymakers who work incredibly hard to make change in their communities. Specifically, I’m thinking of people like Mayor Chip Johnson in Hernando, Mississippi, Councilman Joe Cimperman in Cleveland, Ohio, and in Philadelphia, Mayor Michael Nutter.

 Who is your role model in your work?

My father started out as a physician working in Sri Lanka and then the United Kingdom—two countries that have national health services and universal healthcare. He moved to the United States to lead the Preventive Cardiology team at the University of California at Davis, but he has never lost his focus on serving the underserved. Throughout his career, he volunteered regularly at free clinics in Davis and Sacramento. He retired last year, and he is now running a free preventive cardiology program at California State University in Sacramento along with a colleague, Dianne Hyson. I couldn’t ask for a better, more inspiring role model.

What game or sport did you play growing up?

I spent a large part of my childhood in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, where I tried lots of sports. My parents enrolled us in all kinds of classes – from soccer to cross-country skiing – through our excellent local parks and recreation department. We were encouraged to try as many activities as possible. One year, someone came to our school and talked about the sport of fencing. I took that up in middle school and ended up fencing competitively into my thirties. I think it’s particularly important for girls to get involved in some kind of sport. It’s great way to boost self-esteem and stay healthy, particularly during those stressful teenage years. To bring this interview full circle, if kids don’t have safe places to play, it’s really hard for them to reap the many benefits of playing sports and being active.

Each week, our own Prarthana Gurung speaks with a Leader to get a quick look at why he or she loves working to create healthy environments for kids. Want to take part? Visit Prarthana’s profile and contact her.