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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, May 26, 2024

Friedman School awarded $6.6 million NIH grant for Mississippi-based nutrition research

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Tufts' Friedman School of Nutrition is pictured on Nov. 19.

The Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts received a $6.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to research community-based nutrition programs in the Mississippi Delta area. The project seeks to bolster local produce consumption and production.

Christina Economos, dean ad interim of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, discussed the school’s approach to their research and first steps. 

“The model that we’re using is a community engagement model, which is really important when you work in communities, to involve them in every step in the research process,” Economos said. “That includes beginning with a year of formative research, to hear their voices [and] understand their concerns and their lived experience and really design an intervention that will be effective for the particular population.”

The Friedman School will conduct research through partnerships with the Delta Health Center and Tougaloo College, a historically Black college in Jackson, Miss.

“There are nine of these health center locations within the Delta,” Economos wrote in a follow-up email to the Daily. “Our partners at Tougaloo are faculty members who will be working with us at Tufts to design, implement and evaluate the intervention.”

The Mississippi Delta area has some of the highest diabetes and obesity rates in the United States, and 77% of the region is classified by the federal government as a food desert. The research intends to foster nutritional education and also increase consumption of food and vegetables.

Robin Boyles, chief program planning development officer at Delta Health Center, explained the center’s role in this initiative.

“We will be recruiting the patients … something like 1,500 of our patients have a diabetic diagnosis,” Boyles said. “Tufts University will be doing the research behind it and collecting the data.”

Boyles commented on practical applications of the research. 

“This will be a great benefit to many of our patients, especially being able to get boxes every week of fresh fruits and vegetables,” Boyles said. “If you’re someone that lives 20 miles from a grocery store … then you may be able to get to the grocery store once a month [and] fresh fruits or vegetables aren’t going to last too long.”

Temika Simmons, chief public relations officer at Delta Health Center, discussed the importance of open communication and education with the public in a community-based study.

“Even though we live in some very starkly impoverished areas, people still have a great sense of pride in what they do,” Simmons said. “No one wants to be plagued with feeling like … they’re underprivileged or that they are without medical care.”

The Delta Health Center provides a wide range of health and wellness services to residents of Mississippi, including teaching patients to “advocate for their own health,” according to Simmons. Simmons emphasized the impact that the grant will have on their operations.

“Part of our education is not just letting people know what our services are, but rather [seeing us] as a tool to manage better health,” she said. “[The grant] allows us to have a unique partnership to deepen that work in terms of education [and] in terms of outreach.”

Economos explained that this research relates to the “Food is Medicine” movement, which medically tailors diet plans to aid in combating illnesses. 

“What's really different about this is it’s a five-year study, and during the first phase, we will work to understand the community, the participants and their lived experience and what they might want in terms of an intervention,” Economos wrote. 

Unlike other Food is Medicine projects where the “produce [could be] grown 1,000 miles away and available in a retail environment,” Economos noted that “the goal of this project is to scale up local production and utilize locally grown produce in the food is medicine intervention.”

Boyles expressed her excitement about working with Tufts and Tougaloo College in this initiative.

“We're really looking forward to rekindling this relationship that we have had before with Tufts,” she said. “We really think it’s going to have … a very positive impact on many of our patients who are low-income and lack access to fresh fruits and vegetables.”