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UTHealth partners on gardening initiative to fight childhood obesity

UTHealth partners on gardening initiative to fight childhood obesity

HOUSTON - (April 25, 2011) - The use of family-focused gardening in the fight against childhood obesity may become a growing trend with a near $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to a Texas higher education partnership.

The project, “Texas Grow! Eat! Go!," will involve horticulturists, nutritionists, physical activity experts and public health leaders from AgriLife Extension Service, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston Texas (UTHealth) and Texas A&M University.

"We want to test the impact of several Extension programs on behaviors related to childhood obesity and track any changes in obesity related to the programs," said Judy Warren, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension special initiatives coordinator and principal investigator.

Alexandra Evans, Ph.D., M.P.H., co-principal investigator and associate professor at The University of Texas School of Public Health, added, “This project's focus on families, schools and environmental changes is a natural extension of the ongoing work related to the prevention and control of childhood obesity at the Michael and Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living.” The Dell Center, which is located on the School of Public Health’s Austin Regional Campus and is part of UTHealth, will lead the project’s research activities.

Building on the Coordinated School Health program requirements for public schools, researchers are using a multi-disciplinary team to evaluate the approach and determine whether the programs impact rates of childhood obesity, are cost-effective and sustainable.

A leading factor in the effort is AgriLife Extension's Junior Master Gardener program, which has demonstrated that children who grow vegetables are more likely to taste and like them, Warren noted.

"It isn't so much about nutrition facts (in combating obesity) as it is to get kids to taste nutritious foods and enjoy them," she said. "Incorporating experiential learning can be effective in improving health-related behaviors and academic learning in science, as previous research on Junior Master Gardeners has shown. We are also using Walk Across Texas, a fun, physical activity program that AgriLife Extension has available for schools."

"We looked at an overall strategy that could engage school leaders, volunteers and local AgriLife Extension educators," Warren added. "We are focused on the school community, getting the kids involved at school, and engaging the whole family in being healthy through food choices and being more active together."

By growing and preparing nutritious foods, Evans said, she hopes this project will help families enjoy eating healthier together. The study will build on current knowledge about effective childhood obesity interventions and could provide evidence-based strategies for future projects, she added.

Joining AgriLife Extension and the UTHealth in the project are Texas A&M's departments of kinesiology and sociology, the School for Rural Public Health and the Institute of Obesity Research and Program Evaluation. The project will continue through 2016.

Jade Waddy
Media Contact: 713-500-3030