Published on 08/16/12

Extension faculty to help battle childhood obesity

By Merritt Melancon, Johnathan Edward McGinty

Faculty from the University of Georgia College of Public Health have teamed with Extension faculty in the university’s College of Family and Consumer Sciences to battle childhood obesity in Colquitt County.

Marsha Davis, an associate professor in the College of Public Health’s department of health promotion and behavior, recently received a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The five-year grant will support a community-based childhood obesity prevention program.

Colquitt County school officials and faculty from the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences and Cooperative Extension will provide additional support for the effort because of their experience with community outreach projects involving nutrition.

Davis is designing the program to engage 600 third graders through an obesity-prevention program that includes their families, schools and community. Her goal is to equip children in Colquitt County with the practical skills they need to become agents of change for their families and schools.

“Because obesity is such a complex issue, we need to work with the community,” Davis said. “Families and schools represent the most important targets for obesity prevention efforts in children. In addition to adopting better habits for themselves at an early age, children also can work to alter behaviors among the adults in the community.”

The students will participate in a school curriculum that will promote healthy eating habits and physical activity while teaching them how to share the lessons they learn. Interactive workshops will be held for parents with sessions focusing on practical strategies for increasing availability and accessibility of healthy foods in the home, reducing TV time and planning for healthy meals.

“We’re hoping the children will help their families eat better, be more physically active and ultimately become advocates for a healthy community,” Davis said.

Davis’s program grew out of a host of initiatives associated with the collaborative Archway Partnership, which pairs resources from UGA with communities throughout the state.

Colquitt County has been very active in creating community-wide environmental and policy changes to encourage healthy living, such as farmers markets, school gardens, walking trails and mobile vans to deliver produce to areas in the county that don’t have easy access to fresh food.

The county’s Cooperative Extension office maintains a robust Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program, which teaches parents how to cook with more fruits and vegetables and how to provide better nutrition to their families.

The Extension office has also worked with community partners to set up a local farmers market and other resources to help get healthier foods onto the tables of the county’s families.

Gail Hanula and Connie Crawley, Extension nutrition specialists with the College of Family and Consumer Sciences, will help with the implementation of the curriculum in the schools. College of Family and Consumer Sciences nutrition researchers Richard Lewis and Rebecca Mullis will be working to help design the study protocols and evaluate the program’s outcomes. The project personnel working with students and their families in Colquitt County will work closely with county Family and Consumer Sciences Extension agent Andrea Scarrow.

If successful, Davis said the program could be readily disseminated through existing Cooperative Extension channels and other public service and outreach units at UGA to communities throughout Georgia.

Merritt Melancon is a public relations manager with UGA's Terry College of Business and previously served as a public relations coordinator for the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and UGA Extension.

Johnathan McGinty is a partner with The Trestle Collective, a creative services agency located in Athens, Georgia.

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