Posted March 14, 2011

USDA awards $3.7M to Temple’s Center for Obesity Research and Education

When the Center for Obesity Research and Education opened its doors five years ago, its goal was to become the focal point for expanding Temple’s research involvement in all aspects of obesity — basic and clinical research, epidemiology and outcome studies involving adult and pediatric patients — as well as for launching important outreach programs in local communities and school systems.

Thanks to a new, $3.7 million grant from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, CORE will now be able to expand those goals even further.

Awarded to Jennifer Orlet Fisher, associate professor of public health and director of CORE’s Family Eating Laboratory, and Elena Serrano, associate professor of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise at Virginia Tech, the new five-year grant will fund a project aimed at preventing obesity among low-income pre-schoolers by teaching mothers simple yet authoritative strategies to promote appropriate food choices and portion sizes to their children.

“There’s a lot of talk about what types of food children should eat, but there is very little research about what factors affect how they eat,” said Fisher. “Some studies have shown that parents with a more authoritative parenting style have children that are less likely to be obese. Those parents are able to achieve a good balance between placing demands on the child and at the same time being responsive to the child’s unique needs. To that end, we want to see if giving mothers straightforward authoritative feeding strategies around food portion size could be the key.”

She says the study will be the first of its kind — a translational research project that proceeds from basic behavioral science on child portion sizes to a clinic-based intervention to a community-level nutrition education program.

Fisher’s project consists of three parts: The first will be to talk with mothers to learn how factors — whether socioeconomic, socio-cultural, or structural — influence their child-feeding strategies around portion size. With this information in mind, the next step will be to develop a behavioral intervention for mothers and their children to be tested in a clinical trial at CORE. The last step will be to implement the clinical-based program within an urban community in Virginia as part of the SNAP-Ed program, an extension of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that provides schools with nutrition education. 

“Low income individuals are some of the hardest hit by obesity,” said Fisher. “And we know that preventing obesity in childhood is critical, so we want to implement a program that will help mothers promote healthy child behaviors as early as possible, to reduce the risk of obesity later.”

“We know that if our kids are going to grow up and win the future, they have to be healthy and receive the right nutrition,” said NIFA director Richard Beachy. “NIFA supports research and the development of methods built on sound science to reverse the trend of rising obesity and assist children and their families in adopting healthy eating habits that will last a lifetime.”

In addition to Fisher’s work, several studies have been published out of CORE focusing on the prevention of childhood obesity. Last year, Gary Foster, director of CORE, published a study which found that school-based nutrition programs could be helpful in reducing rates of overweight and obesity in middle-schoolers.

Prior to that, researchers at CORE worked with the Food Trust on a study that looked at the spending habits of school children at local corner stores. The study found that children were spending a little over a dollar a day per visit, which amounted to about 300 extra calories per day. This research was even lauded by First Lady Michelle Obama during a visit to Philadelphia last year to kick off her “Let’s Move” campaign.

“The increasing prevalence and serious consequences of childhood obesity are pushing us to find solutions that go beyond the clinic and reach greater numbers of children,” said Foster. “Dr Fisher’s grant from the USDA will allow us to do that.”

Foster and Robert Whitaker, professor of public health and pediatrics at CORE, will also collaborate on Fisher’s study, along with Adam Davey, associate professor of public health in the College of Health Professions and Social Work. “It’s the first grant that will bring together the unique expertise of multiple investigators at CORE,” said Fisher.