The Mississippi Healthy Students Act of 2007 gave the state’s public schools new mandates for physical activity programs and health education instruction. But how can policy makers know whether these changes are making a real difference?
Teresa Carithers, professor of nutrition and hospitality in the UM School of Applied Sciences, is providing answers to that question. A nutrition epidemiologist, Carithers was contacted by the Center for Mississippi Health Policy and asked if she would develop a school nutrition environment assessment as part of a collaborative project with the University of Southern Mississippi and Mississippi State University. The collaborative research opportunity has received funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The Bower Foundation.
The outcomes have been positive. Carithers and her colleagues found positive trends in schools introducing healthier vending machine options and increasing offerings of fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains, while at the same time switching to low-fat milk and decreasing trans fats. The project’s findings also documented a positive correlation between the replacements of fryers with combi ovens, which combine convection and steaming capabilities, and decreased fried food offerings. That finding led to a new initiative, funded by The Bower Foundation, which will focus on a statewide assessment of the placement of combi ovens. The project can serve as a model for other states seeking to combat childhood obesity.
To collect data, Carithers and her team developed the Mississippi School Nutrition Environment Evaluation Data System. The assessment involved interviews with school nutrition managers, site visits to a representative sample of schools to collect observational data and the review of key documentation, including production records, menus and wellness policy information for each school over four consecutive years.
Combatting childhood obesity is a major challenge for Mississippi, which is home to some of the highest childhood obesity rates in the nation. Key to combatting that trend is establishing how effective it is to fight obesity in the school setting.
Teresa Carithers Analyzes
School Nutrition Data
“Children spend a large amount of time in the school systems and most consume at least two meals and some snacks per weekdays at schools,” Carithers said. “It is critical to also note that children consume foods at home and other venues, so one thing our research will help clarify is that as school nutrition improves, we should see positive trends in obesity. If we do not see that longitudinally, then our research will help us focus attention and resources in other areas as well.”
Although everyone from state policy makers to school district food-service managers has been getting on board, UM’s involvement further facilitates progress by providing an outside, nonbiased partner to evaluate effectiveness. In this partnership, UM is establishing the groundwork needed to safeguard the long-term health of the state’s population.
“Obesity is considered the risk factor for other chronic disease risk factors,” Carithers said. “For example, obesity many times precedes hypertension, diabetes, heart disease and renal failure. Thus, if we can impact obesity rates, we can also affect positive change in many other chronic disease rates, not just in pediatric populations, but also in future generations.”
For Carithers, the desire to help people lead healthier lives is the main motivation, both as a researcher and as a Mississippian.
“I love Mississippi, and if our research can improve the health of Mississippi children, it’s a win-win opportunity. If we have healthier school nutrition environments that provide healthier menu options to our children, then we will hopefully have healthier adults. If that happens, we all benefit.”