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Shedding pounds with healthier plates—and bank accounts

Collaboration fuses lifestyle changes with financial counseling to fight obesity

Shedding pounds with healthier plates—and bank accounts
Shedding pounds with healthier plates—and bank accounts
(L-R) Shreela V. Sharma, Professor at UTHealth Houston School of Public Health and Co-Founder of Brighter Bites; Rick Jaramillo, Houston Market Executive at Bank of America; Lauren Smith, Associate Director of Corporate Engagement and Foundation Relations

While vegetables and credit scores may occupy vastly different spaces in life, a new partnership brings them together to address obesity and diabetes in low-income Houston communities.

“We know that financial stress significantly increases the risk of chronic conditions such as obesity, because when you are on a limited budget you are more likely to eat unhealthy foods and have disordered eating patterns,” says Shreela V. Sharma, PhD, Professor in the Department of Epidemiology, Human Genetics, and Environmental Science at UTHealth Houston School of Public Health. “We believe that improving a person’s financial literacy and empowerment will remove some of that stress, making lifestyle-based interventions more feasible and effective.”

In 2012, Sharma co-founded Brighter Bites, a school-based program that distributes fresh produce to low-income families while also providing nutritional education and fun food experiences such as recipe tastings. Research from UTHealth Houston showed the program increased the intake of fruits and vegetables, reduced added sugar consumption, and improved the home environment, but Sharma felt Brighter Bites could go further.

In concert with the UTHealth Houston Many Faces. One Mission. campaign and its focus on improving Houston’s health, Sharma and the School of Public Health approached Bank of America Charitable Foundation to fund a unique vision that would bring together for the first-time a collaboration between Brighter Bites, national credit counseling service Neighborhood Trust Financial Partners (NTFP), and additional academic experts at The City University of New York School of Public Health and University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

The project will recruit 100 families from Brighter Bites with parents at risk of diabetes. Brighter Bites will offer its traditional services enhanced with the mobile application Noom, which uses a cognitive behavioral therapy approach to support weight loss. At the same time, NTFP—known for helping clients reduce debt—will provide one-on-one financial coaching.

This approach aims to directly impact the Greater Houston community while evaluating how a combination of financial coaching and lifestyle interventions can improve metabolic outcomes for diabetes prevention when delivered simultaneously.

“The concept behind the program really intrigued us,” says Patti Abshire, Senior Vice President at Bank of America. “I had heard about how financial literacy and health intersect, but we never saw anyone actually doing anything about it. This program seemed like an excellent idea and a natural fit for us.”

Bank of America agreed not only to fund the project but to also introduce participants to its own financial education initiative, Better Money Habits. Comprising approximately 100 free online videos in English and Spanish, Better Money Habits helps viewers better understand topics including credit, saving and investing, and homeownership.

“We want to make sure our community has access to good financial education,” Patti says. “One of my favorite videos shows how to save on everyday expenses. For example, if instead of going to Starbucks every day you make your own coffee at home, you save $20 a week. For a family on a very tight budget, that can prove significant.”

While Bank of America does not usually fund pilot initiatives, the School of Public Health program presented a unique opportunity: Since it will support mostly minority families, it fits with the bank’s recent pledge to commit $1.25 billion to advance racial and ethnic equality and create economic opportunity.

“The major factor when we consider a grant is how it will make an impact,” Patti says. “In this case, we believe strongly that it will not only help address the country’s obesity epidemic, but do so in a way that promotes equity.”

The program will provide 12 months of support for families before assessing results, and Sharma says that if successful, it could be scaled to reach a much broader group of families throughout Texas and the United States.

“This is an issue that affects people everywhere,” she says. “We have already seen the proven effectiveness of Brighter Bites, and we believe that especially as inflation continues to stress the finances of low-income families, this unique collaboration can help them experience healthier, more financially secure lives.”

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