May 6, 2010

Cornell Program Aiming to Reduce Childhood Obesity Receives Grant

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Christina Stark, senior extension associate in the division of nutritional sciences, is trying to reduce childhood obesity by changing the environments surrounding children. Stark received a grant on Mar. 15 of $500,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to further her extension program that trains professionals through a facilitated online course to apply an ecological approach, which goes beyond simply instructing individuals on how they should eat and actually tries to change their environment, in preventing childhood obesity.Stark’s extension project is an online continuing education course called Preventing Childhood Obesity: An Ecological Approach. This six-week course, implemented in 2006, educates nutrition and health professionals on how to address childhood obesity in their local communities. Stark said she believes childhood obesity will be prevented by employing an ecological approach.“The approach is to change the environment — the school environment, the community environment, the policy environment, the social environment — to make it easier for people to eat healthier and be more active,” Stark said. “We can say to kids, ‘don’t drink so much soda,’ but if the only options available in the vending machines in school are soda, they can’t put it into action. So the approach is to change the environment.”Preventing Childhood Obesity is targeted at nutrition professionals and community leaders. The ultimate goal is for the course participants to create action plans specific to their communities that are ready for implementation upon course completion, Stark said. Throughout the fifteen-hour process, facilitated by Stark, participants identify and target the specific problematic environments of their communities.“The site teaches a process: how to develop an action plan that is targeted to your own community, how to choose environments to change and [how to] set priorities and objectives. You have to look at emotional attitudes of those in the social environment of the community,” Stark said.While the course is offered for professionals, Stark said she is enthusiastic about targeting teams of various extension professionals to enroll as a group and fulfill the course together. Specifically, Stark intends to involve more 4-H youth development educators into her pool of course participants, she said.“We’re looking at county level extension professionals as the target audience; they’re the ones who are familiar with the communities,” she said.The current audience for Stark’s program is dominated by nutrition professionals, since childhood obesity is considered an issue of a nutritionist’s concern, but Stark said the involvement of community leaders is increasingly relevant in solving the childhood obesity problem. Stark has partnered with Barbara Schirmer, state 4-H youth development program leader of Cornell Cooperative Extension, who has extensive experience in dealing with community leaders.“[The attitude among specialists has been that] you go do your 4-H programs and I go do my nutrition programs. To have them working in these collaborations more closely is what were aiming to do,” Stark said.$11 million in grants were awarded this year to 11 different projects through the National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Human Nutrition and Obesity program. This program aims to develop effective strategies to prevent obesity and to develop behavioral and environmental instruments to measure the progress of obesity prevention efforts. The initiative awards grants annually.“The health of our nation depends on the health of our families, and it’s imperative that we address the obesity crisis impacting our country,” said USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack regarding the latest round of NIFA grants, according to a USDA press release. “I’m optimistic that these research grants will help develop effective obesity prevention strategies and the tools that we need for measuring our progress in the battle against obesity.”The $500,000 of funding Stark received is to be divvied out over the course of the next four years. In her application and proposal to the USDA, she said she will use the grant money to fund the continued existence of the facilitated online course, seek the accomplishment of new initiatives — namely, promoting increased team enrollment — and support both her assistant’s and her own positions in the University.Stark said she plans to use part of the money she received in the grant to offer a discounted rate for taking her course for teams composed of one nutrition extension professional, a 4-H extension professional, and one community partner. She also noted an added benefit of team enrollment: the course has a 100 percent completion rate when taken by a team, compared to an 80 percent completion rate by individuals.Stark said she has relied upon grant money in the past from the USDA to fund the extension program. Cornell’s college of Human Ecology and the Provost office also paid for the creation of the online facilitated course, which is built off of Cornell’s professional and executive development curriculum site, eCornell, in collaboration with Cornell NutritionWorks.This year, Stark’s project was the only extension project of the Human Nutrition and Obesity program’s 11 grant recipients, receiving the maximum amount of funding available to an extension project. The other 10 projects that received money in this round of grants fell into the category of extension and research integrated projects, with maximum funding at $1 million.

Original Author: Isabel Eckstein