With childhood obesity at epidemic proportions in the United States, and West Virginia among the highest in the nation, West Virginia University has received a nearly $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a five-year, multidisciplinary effort to create effective pediatric prevention strategies.

“We have often spoken of the University’s mission to help make people’s lives better through research, innovation and education,” said Curt M. Peterson, vice president for research and economic development.

“This opportunity will allow WVU to apply its considerable skill and talent across a broad swath of specialties to the challenge of making children’s lives better. That is admirable work with life-saving consequences. We are honored that USDA chose WVU to do that work.”

The $4.7 million grant is from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture and is part of a national campaign to combat obesity.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that 15 percent of West Virginia youth in 9th through 12th grades are overweight with another 17 percent obese. Chronic diseases formerly associated with adult obesity are now showing up among our youngest citizens. The long-term negative impact of childhood obesity and chronic disease on life expectancy and quality of life make early childhood obesity prevention a vital and immediate public health concern.

“We know that for our children to grow up and win the future, they need nutritious diets and healthy lifestyles that enable them to reach their fullest potential,” said Roger Beachy, NIFA director. “USDA supports the research and development of science-based methods that can reverse the trend of rising obesity and assist children and their families in adopting healthy eating habits that will last a lifetime.”

Over the course of the five-year project, community stakeholders, parents, educators, healthcare professionals, and researchers will collaborate to develop these strategies. Efforts will begin with an assessment of behavioral and environmental contributors to obesity in early childhood, followed by analysis of this extensive assessment to inform the design and implementation of a community-, school-, and home-level interventions.

The study population will be families with children in school-based and center-based Head Start/pre-kindergarten settings in Kanawha and Monongalia counties.

Given the scope and complexity of the problem of childhood obesity, WVU’s team represents a comprehensive range of disciplines and expertise.

The group will be led by Susan Partington, associate professor of human nutrition and foods in WVU’s Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design. Partington is responsible for general oversight of the project, including research, education and Extension activities. Additionally, as director of the Graduate Dietetic Internship at WVU she will coordinate intern participation in the project.

“This project has been designed to identify effective methods to promote healthy lifestyle behaviors in children,” Partington said. “Since the lifestyle habits associated with obesity in adults begin in childhood, prevention initiatives that establish healthy eating and physical activity behaviors in young children may have a significant impact on future obesity risk.”

WVU Extension Service’s Families and Health unit, will focus primarily on interaction with schools in the participating counties. Emily Murphy, childhood obesity prevention specialist, and Elaine Bowen, health promotion specialist, will work with advisory committees, collect feedback from focus groups, and facilitate implementation of obesity prevention strategies, helping schools incorporate nutrition education and physical activity into early childhood education.

“Extension’s role will be to deliver educational programming to promote good nutrition and age-appropriate physical activity for preschool-aged children in schools and childcare centers in Kanawha and Monongalia counties and to help parents develop the skills to promote those good habits at home,” Murphy said.

“We are engaging whole communities in exploring their environments and creating potential solutions to prevent obesity,” Bowen added.

The long-term follow-up impact of this study will be assessed with coordinated efforts of WVU’s long-running CARDIAC Project, according to Lesley Cottrell of the WVU School of Medicine. The CARDIAC Project has provided in-school health assessments to thousands of West Virginia children over the past decade and will provide a final health assessment for the children in this study.

WVU’s Regional Research Institute will offer its economic expertise. Research associate professor Donald J. Lacombe and research assistant professor Gianfranco Piras will conduct statistical analysis of the data using spatial econometric techniques, examining not only data from the obesity research but the use of the techniques themselves.

“Traditional statistical techniques assume that data are not related geographically,” Lacombe explained. “What we would like to do is to apply these spatial econometric techniques to the case of childhood obesity in West Virginia to see if this assumption regarding the data holds. We have a strong belief that these data will be geographically related and that the statistical techniques that we will be using will help to shed light on this important issue.”



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