College efforts to prevent obesity rooted in communities

Obesity is a serious and costly problem in Georgia, which now has the 20th highest adult obesity rate in the nation according to a recent report by The State of Obesity project. The UGA College of Public Health is actively engaged in research and outreach aimed at combating the obesity epidemic, particularly in low-income, rural, and minority communities, where the burden is the greatest.

Empowering Rural Communities to Reduce Obesity

Calhoun and Taliaferro are two rural counties in Georgia that, like most rural counties, experience high rates of poverty, chronic disease and obesity. In fact, around half of the people living in Calhoun and Taliaferro counties are obese.

For the past year, the College of Public Health, Cooperative Extension, and College of Family and Consumer Science been working with community leaders and stakeholders to boost obesity prevention efforts in these counties through the Healthier Together project.

The effort is funded by a two-year, $1.25 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Marsha Davis, associate dean for outreach at the College of Public Health, is the project’s principal investigator and Dr. Courtney Still, a postdoctoral research associate in the College, serves as Healthier Together’s program coordinator.

UGA Extension staff in both counties gathered interested community members to form coalitions to create strategies to reduce and prevent obesity in their communities through education, promotion, and policy and environmental change. These coalitions then developed action plans for their communities, which included projects that would not only increase healthy eating and physical activity in the short term, but would also include environmental and policy changes that support health in the long term.

When the Healthier Together project began, the only place to buy food in Calhoun county was a convenience store. In July, the county installed its first community garden. Taliaferro held its first Bike Rodeo event, and the local school now has raised beds. In November, the coalitions met with a representative from Fresh Stop Markets, a CSA-type program designed to connect local farmers with communities lacking access to fresh produce. Future projects will include a visit from an expert on building pedestrian-friendly infrastructures and a lesson on smarter lunchrooms.

Helping Kids Make Healthier Food Choices

Dr. Janani Thapa, assistant professor of health policy and management, is working to help kids access, and eat, more healthy foods. Her research examines how policies and programs promote fruit and vegetable consumption among school-age children.

In an effort to combat childhood obesity and ensure access to healthy foods, new National School Lunch Program guidelines require that school lunches include more fruit, vegetables, and whole grains, while limiting sugar and sodium. However, increasing the availability of healthy foods is moot if kids aren’t eating it.

“Federal-level policy makes sure the healthy foods are served in the school lunchroom, but being served doesn’t translate into being consumed,” said Thapa, so states and other institutions are exploring creative approaches to encourage more kids to choose and eat healthy foods.

Thapa is one of eighteen researchers who has received grants from the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs to evaluate Smarter Lunchroom Movements ‘nudge’ techniques. Her current project compares the success of using table talkers to promote fruit and vegetable (F&V) consumption at elementary and middle schools in two adjacent Georgia counties. Table talkers, displayed on lunch tables, are designed to associate F&V with fun activities, such as children’s literature, science, math and sports. Findings for this study will be published soon.

Evaluating Childhood Obesity Policy in Georgia

A team of researchers from the College of Public Health has partnered with the Georgia Department of Public Health to evaluate the implementation and impacts of Georgia’s policy to prevent childhood obesity – the Georgia Student Health and Physical Education (SHAPE) initiative.

Launched in 2012 by Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, Georgia SHAPE is a statewide, multi-agency and multi-dimensional initiative that brings together governmental, philanthropic, academic and business communities to address childhood (0-18) obesity in Georgia.

The SHAPE policy evaluation project, now approaching year two, is funded by a three-year, $1.5 million grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Phaedra Corso, UGA Foundation Professor of Human Health and director of the UGA Economic Evaluation Research Group, Dr. Marsha Davis, associate dean for outreach and professor of health promotion and behavior, and Dr. Janani Thapa, assistant professor of health policy and management, are leading the evaluation.

The evaluation aims to assess parental awareness, attitudes, and activities associated with the SHAPE policy; school implementation and costs of the SHAPE policy; and what variables impact school implementation of the SHAPE policy and how that implementation impacts school-level obesity and fitness levels.

Currently, the research team is visiting elementary schools across the state to interview principals and physical education teachers about the SHAPE policy. The team will visit a total of 100 elementary schools in the state before the end of 2018. Additionally, a random-digit-dial telephone survey of approximately 1,000 parents throughout the state of Georgia is set to begin in the coming weeks. Analysis of secondary data is also underway to look at the impacts of policy implementation in schools.

Ultimately, the results of these analyses will provide information to policymakers at the state, public-private partners supporting implementation, and other states interested in implementation of a similar policy initiative to combat childhood obesity.

Rebecca Ayer and Lauren Baggett

Posted January 19, 2018.

Originally published in the Jan. 19, 2018 ASPPH Friday Letter.

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