Obesity is increasingly affecting residents of Connecticut. Recent statistics report that 20% of children and 36% of young adults are afflicted by obesity (Poulin & Peng, 2018). A team of Extension educators, faculty, and graduate students in Allied Health Sciences are working with community partners to take a multi-faceted approach to addressing health and nutrition issues in schools and families through research and outreach.
“We’re trying to empower income-challenged families to minimize the barriers to healthy eating and lifestyles,” says Valerie Duffy, PhD RD, principal investigator or co-principal investigator on the projects, and Professor and Director of the Graduate Program in Allied Health Sciences. “We’re working with stakeholders to determine what modes of communication are best for them, and how to close the gap between what the families are doing, and what behaviors would be better.”
Currently there are three funding sources supporting the initiatives of the team. The first is a grant from the Child Health and Development Institute of Connecticut 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. Duffy and Jennifer Harris, PhD, MBA from Allied Health Sciences and the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity are the co-PIs. Other team members are from Allied Health Sciences, the Rudd Center, the Department of Nutritional Sciences, the Department of Communication, and Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. The community partner is East Hartford Family Resource Center.
“We have a collaborative team that’s trying to develop simple messages for families to help them establish healthy eating behaviors in toddlers. We hope to make messages are tailored to families so they are more meaningful,” says Duffy.
Hatch funding from the Storrs Agricultural Experiment Station, also in UConn’s College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources funds tailored messages for health promotion and obesity prevention using e-health and m-health. The inter-disciplinary team is also on this project, with many of the same team members. Three connected studies will harness technology to deliver tailored nutrition and health messages to middle school students, adolescents, and young adults to improve diet quality for obesity prevention. Community partners include Windsor Public Schools and UConn Student Health Services.
The SNAP-Ed program, funded by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) of the United States Department
of Agriculture (USDA) is the third funding source, and glue that connects all of the projects. The SNAP-Ed program has built a foundation in communities throughout central Connecticut and developed strong partnerships over many years of collaboration. In turn, these partnerships allow the team to identify community needs with input from audiences served and program partners.
“We make lessons applicable to our audiences’ lives,” says Tina Dugdale, MS, RD/RN. “It’s possible to eat healthy foods like fruits and vegetables in recommended serving sizes.” The SNAP-Ed program engages undergraduate and graduate students in Allied Health Sciences – especially those in the Dietetics Coordinated Undergraduate Program and Internship – who work in a variety of communities in Connecticut to deliver nutrition education and carry out service and outreach projects.
All three of the projects offer communication and outreach that is culturally relevant and tailored to the populations served. Materials and classes are offered in English and Spanish. Survey research will identify the key gaps in behavior, and further influence the communication campaigns. The goal connecting all projects is to improve family dietary quality and energy balance in families of economic disadvantage.
“Many people are banded together throughout the state putting forth efforts to help people with their hardships,” Dugdale concludes. “It’s a satisfying victory when we see our participants make small changes that contribute to the improvement of their health and nutrition.”
Poulin, S. M. & Peng, J. (2018). Connecticut Childhood Obesity Report, 2018. Hartford, CT: Connecticut Department of Public Health.
Text by Stacey Stearns