Preventing obesity in early childhood is a critical issue being addressed by a multi-disciplinary team from UConn. It’s one of three complementary projects led by faculty in Allied Health Sciences, and is funded by a grant from the Child Health and Development Institute of Connecticut. The project focuses on preventing obesity in early childhood by offering parents of economic disadvantage simple and feasible feeding practices to develop healthier food preferences for their children. Valerie Duffy, PhD, RD, and Jennifer Harris, PhD, MBA from Allied Health Sciences and the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity are the co-PIs.
Lindsay Fenn, RD, is a masters’ student in Health Promotion Sciences in Allied Health Sciences, and has conducted nutrition outreach education with family resources centers in East Hartford. Fenn conducts outreach education for three different schools, although the majority of her time is spent with Early Childhood Learning Center at Hockanum School. There are multiple partners in East Hartford that the team works with to reach audiences and broaden their impact. These include the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) centers, the Hunger Action Team, and Foodshare mobile sites.
“I ran workshops for parents on picky eating and eating healthy in general, mainly with preschool ages,” says Fenn. Each workshop is approximately one hour. She begins by working with the parents, while the children have supervised play time. Next, there is a workshop for the kids, and parents are encouraged to be involved in this segment, cooking with their kids.
“Programs for kids are interactive, for example, we had them make banana snowmen with pretzels for the arms and carrots for the nose. We get the kids involved so they will eat healthy foods and try new things,” Fenn adds.
Part of the project at Hockanum included a Farm to School program where they built a garden, and took the classrooms outside, planted seeds, and then volunteers weeded the gardens over the summer. Lindsay attends the community dinners at a local church, and covered nutrition topics with the participants at the dinner. She is currently working with the Mayberry Elementary School and focusing on healthy eating around the holidays.
The grant through the Child Health and Development Institute began last year, and is building off of the relationships Fenn and the Allied Health Sciences team have built in East Hartford. “Our research question is to determine if parents are following the guidelines for feeding children ages 12-36 months,” Fenn says. “We also want to determine what the knowledge gaps are for these parents.”
The team at Allied Health Sciences are using a survey and other research to fill the knowledge gaps for parents of young children. The survey was created with input from multiple stakeholders. Staff at the family resource centers were involved in developing the survey to make sure it was a good fit for the populations served. For example, the survey was administered online with pictures to reinforce concepts. Fenn conducted the survey at the East Hartford WIC program, a daycare center, and the library, and had 134 parents participate.
“Our goal is to communicate consistently with parents in East Hartford,” Harris states. “We want to help them identify one or two behaviors that could be addressed with better communication, and that they are willing to change. These may be reducing sugary drinks, replacing snacks with healthier ones, practicing responsive eating, or adding variety to fruits and vegetables.”
The team focuses on two or three changes that a parent can make in their child’s nutrition. Follow up emails with participants build off of the previous work of the messaging campaign. Dr. Molly Waring is another Allied Health team member with expertise in social media as a communication tool. Social media platforms can be used for peer support after the initial communication from the Allied Health Sciences team members.
Initial analysis shows the results are supported by previous research. There is a lack of vegetable diversity and variety in children’s diets. Numerous parents cited that they are serving their children sugar sweetened beverages.
The next phase of the team’s research is convening focus groups at WIC and Hockanum in January and February that will talk about the main areas and gaps in knowledge that the research identified. Results are being shared with stakeholders so that they can also tailor their nutrition education messages to help parents decrease sugar-sweetened beverages and increase vegetable variety.
“I’ve gotten to know the different families, and received positive feedback about the workshops,” Fenn concludes. “It’s rewarding to interact with people, and see parents again after you’ve worked with them. They appreciate our work and say that we’ve helped them make positive changes.”
The grant is only for the project in East Hartford, however Duffy and Harris are developing a proof of concept through this project so that East Hartford can be a pilot for other communities to use communication in preventing early childhood obesity.
By Stacey Stearns