Friedman School gets grant for obesity study
Published: Wednesday, February 8, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, February 8, 2012 05:02
With the receipt of a $6.9 million grant, the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy has publicly launched ChildObesity180, a multi−sector organization aimed at supporting research on and the implementation of childhood obesity prevention strategies.
The grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, an entity dedicated to financing health improvement−based initiatives, marks the public phase of the organization, which was initially conceived in 2009.
As discussed in University President Anthony Monaco's recent email to the Tufts community, ChildObesity180 — hosted through the John Hancock Research Center on Physical Activity, Nutrition and Obesity Prevention — strives to reverse childhood obesity trends that spawned an epidemic that has tripled in size in the last 30 years.
It aims to achieve this goal through an approach that involves consulting with leaders in the fields of government, media, policy and community−based services.
ChildObesity180 co−Director Miriam Nelson explained the different phases of the initiative.
"We've tested the hypothesis that we could get the highest−level leadership of multiple sectors to come together and develop a plan," Nelson said. "We did, and they remained engaged. The second activity is putting together a priority−setting framework, to drill down and decide what would be the most helpful strategies and initiatives. The third is developing those plans to take on a national level and get the funding to start implementing."
The grant has moved the initiative forward into the public sphere.
"We were in what I'd call a three−year quiet phase as we were developing the idea, the concept and initial funding," Nelson said.
Over the past three years, ChildObesity180 has developed partnerships with several organizations, including the Girl Scouts of the USA and the National 4−H Council, both of which have high−level representation, according to Nelson.
The project has also gathered leaders from the academic, government, food industry and private sectors, all committed to addressing and preventing childhood obesity. These include Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone, President and CEO of National Public Radio Gary Knell and retired President and CEO of Kellogg Company A.D. David Mackay.
Nelson is also a professor at the Friedman School and the director and founder of the John Hancock Research Center. Vice Chair of the Board of the Trustees Peter Dolan (A '78) and Friedman School Associate Professor Christina Economos join Nelson at the helm of ChildObesity180.
Economos led the acclaimed Shape Up Somerville initiative that served as a model for First Lady Michelle Obama's nationwide childhood obesity prevention program. She is the vice−chair and director of the new program.
The three individuals started discussing the best way to tackle childhood obesity when Dolan, now serving as chair of the organization, approached Nelson about the subject.
"Peter came to me three years ago and said that he was so distraught with the childhood obesity epidemic that he wanted to see what kind of role he could play in making a difference," Nelson said. "We helped him understand the whole epidemic and causes and solutions, and he was a very quick study. He is committed to this as a citizen. This is what he wants to do."
She added that Dolan is not paid for his involvement with ChildObesity180.
"It's a great testament that as a trustee he's so committed to our work," Nelson said.
After conducting research, Nelson said they agreed that the best solution was to develop a multi−sector leadership group to consider initiatives that would produce the highest impact on the reversal of childhood obesity trends.
ChildObesity180 on Tuesday is planning to launch its second initiative, "After School Acceleration Project," according to Nelson.
Sandra Bolton, a Somerville resident and grandmother of a Girl Scout struggling with obesity, heard about ChildObesity180 and is encouraged by Girl Scouts of the USA's participation in its "Healthy Kids Out of School" initiative.
The initiative focuses on extracurricular programs, encouraging the implementation of sustainable nutrition and physical activity principles.
"Hopefully there will be some ground−level implementation soon, but it's worthwhile to know that the organization my daughter is a part of truly stands behind their commitment to community improvement," Bolton told the Daily.
Brandon Ransom, who is studying food policy and applied nutrition at the Friedman School, is Economos' mentee and works closely with her. He noted that a key goal of the organization is to work locally to develop a national model similar to Shape Up Somerville's evolution.
"The work of ChildObesity180 is to make programs at a grassroots level that incorporate healthy living styles and nutrition; essentially, they're trying to make it something that can be implemented nationwide," he said.
With regard to the realities of child obesity, Nelson insists that there has been an improvement in the trends.
"There are many people working on this issue across the country," she said. "I feel this [organization] will be a major player in this. Our primary goal is to use the latest research and evidence to inform work we do and prevent young children from becoming obese." Both Nelson and Ransom emphasized that the program aims to prevent obesity, not treat it.
"At the Friedman School, the goal is eventually to focus on dealing with diseases before they occur," Ransom said. "It's more expensive to go to the hospital in an ambulance than it is to have a check−up."