Aug. 10, 2015

Obesity center tests ways to make healthy choices easier

Cornell’s Northeast Regional Nutrition Education and Obesity Prevention Center of Excellence awarded grants to six agencies to test promising obesity prevention interventions that could make healthy choices easier for low-income families. The projects combine nutrition education with organizational and community changes designed to increase access to healthy foods and opportunities for physical activity, such as wellness policies, mobile produce markets, school lunchroom makeovers, and expanded roles for health care providers. The one-year grants, which started July 1, total about $260,000.

“Although nutrition education programs have shown success in improving peoples’ food habits, there’s a growing recognition that tackling obesity requires going beyond individual knowledge and behavior change to make the places people live, work and play more conducive to health,” said Jamie Dollahite, director of the center and professor of nutrition in the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell.

“The center’s research program aims to address a gap in the evidence base about effective ways to help low-income people achieve better health through federal nutrition education programs.”

Two of the grants fund a collaboration between the center and Cornell Cooperative Extension associations in Jefferson and Orange counties to test models combining nutrition education with worksite wellness policies in community agencies and day care centers. The initiative aims to support healthy habits for employees and agency participants.

One project, led by Mira Mehta, director of the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) at the University of Maryland Extension, will assess the effectiveness of engaging primary health care providers to assess children’s physical activity levels and provide information and referrals to local physical activity resources and nutrition education.

Joel Gittelsohn, professor of international health at the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, is leading a collaboration that will test a model to train youth to implement nutrition education and wellness policies at Baltimore recreation centers as part of a larger study assessing strategies to improve the local food environment.

Grace Damio, director of research and training at the Hispanic Health Council in Hartford, Connecticut, will lead a study to assess the effects of combining nutrition education with a social marketing campaign to increase awareness about a recently launched mobile produce market.

Linda Sebelia, principal investigator for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-Education (SNAP-Ed) and program coordinator for EFNEP at the University of Rhode Island, will use her grant to test an intervention to engage fifth-grade students in activities designed to change the school food environment such as conducting an environmental scan, writing letters to the school wellness committee and testing recipes to incorporate into the school’s menu.

“We are pleased to be working with such talented partners and look forward to the insights that these promising projects will generate,” Dollahite said.

Part of a national collaboration funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture and Food and Nutrition Service, the center is bringing together researchers, extension leaders and community partners across the region to identify effective obesity prevention programs and develop translational and training tools primarily through SNAP-Ed and EFNEP. In addition to Dollahite and her staff, center leadership includes seven other experts in the field representing Cornell, the University of Connecticut, University of Maine, Pennsylvania State University, West Virginia University, Delaware State University and the Hispanic Health Council.

Karene Booker is program coordinator for the Northeast Regional Nutrition Education and Obesity Prevention Center of Excellence in the Division of Nutritional Sciences.