Seed grant research explores impact of environment on state childhood obesity policy

Janani Thapa, an assistant professor of health policy and management in the College of Public Health, and a multi-disciplinary team of UGA researchers will study how the built environment surrounding schools impacts the implementation of Georgia SHAPE, Georgia’s state-wide childhood obesity policy, thanks to funding provided by UGA’s Presidential Interdisciplinary Seed Grant Program.

Current evaluations of Georgia SHAPE don’t take into consideration the physical location of schools or the what the environment looks like around them, said Thapa.  These studies, which are being led by Thapa and investigators from the College’s Economic Evaluation Research Group, are looking at how Georgia schools have implemented SHAPE programs and whether the schools have seen positive changes to student health.

For the seed grant project, Thapa and her UGA team will map each school and its surrounding environment to explore how the location of the school may have contributed to the observed outcomes.

“Each school serves a unique neighborhood with varying access to healthy food options or opportunities for physical activity, such sidewalks to walk on, or parks to take kids to play. These factors can play a role in physical activity and fitness outcomes of children,” she said.

The findings from the seed grant study could further inform and improve the state-wide obesity policy by identifying needs and avenues for localized efforts at schools within neighborhoods that discourage healthy eating and physical activity.

Also, by the end of the project, said Thapa, the team will have compiled extensive data on the built environment that could be helpful to other researchers across Georgia.

Collaborators on the grant include Marsha Davis, Jennifer Gay, Justin Ingles and Donglan “Stacy” Zhang (College of Public Health); Lan Mu (Franklin College of Arts and Sciences); Michael Schmidt (College of Education); and Chen Zhen (College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences).  Senior advisors on this project are Brian Elbel (NYU Langone Health) and Rodolfo Nayga (University of Arkansas).

Seven additional faculty teams were awarded funds through the second round of the Interdisciplinary Seed Grant Program, which will support research projects spanning 15 colleges, schools and other units at the University of Georgia.

CPH faculty members Erin Lipp and Christopher Whalen are also co-investigators on projects funded through the program.

“Today’s major public health challenges are complex, and they require collaborating across fields and areas of expertise to arrive at workable solutions,” said Marsha Davis, dean of the College of Public Health. “I am pleased to see College of Public Health faculty so well represented in this initiative.”

When the Presidential Interdisciplinary Seed Grants were first awarded in 2017, 12 faculty teams received funds totaling some $1.37 million. The work enabled by those seed grants supported subsequent applications for external funding that have brought nearly $13 million in new grants to UGA to date. This remarkable 10-to-1 return on investment led President Jere W. Morehead to announce a second round of grants for 2019-20.

“This initiative underscores the amazingly diverse expertise of our faculty across campus, and it capitalizes on the highly collaborative environment at UGA,” said Morehead. “This interdisciplinary research will result in meaningful benefits to our state, nation and world while helping to expand the university’s research enterprise.”

– Krista Richmond; with contributions from Rebecca Ayer.

Read the original release at UGA Today. Additional coverage at ASPPH Friday Letter.

Posted on January 24, 2020.