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USDA designates Cornell as obesity prevention hub

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Cornell's Northeast Regional Nutrition Education and Obesity Prevention Center of Excellence has won a $856,250 award to fight obesity.

A new federally funded Cornell center will study how simple changes to schools, communities and workplaces could help people live healthier and boost the success of long-running nutrition education programs for low-income families.

The Northeast Regional Nutrition Education and Obesity Prevention Center of Excellence, based in Cornell’s Division of Nutritional Sciences and funded by a two-year, $856,250 award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, unites multidisciplinary researchers, extension leaders and community partners to address socio-ecological factors contributing to obesity. One of five sites established by a $4 million USDA grant, Cornell’s center is a hub for 12 states, from Maine to Virginia, coordinating research and testing interventions primarily through the national Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-Education (SNAP-Ed) and Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP).

“In tackling a complex issue like obesity, it’s difficult to bring about lasting success with nutrition education alone,” said center director Jamie Dollahite, professor of nutritional sciences in the College of Human Ecology. “To help people with long-term health, our team will be investigating how environmental changes to places where people live, work and play can make healthy choices the easy choices.”

In addition to carrying out this research program, the center will issue sub-awards for projects in the Northeast to test community-based interventions and build a network to disseminate findings to the public and throughout the extension system.

Dollahite added it also will focus on building evidence for the effectiveness of SNAP-Ed, EFNEP and other USDA nutrition programs serving low-income populations, helping to meet Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 requirements for evidence-based interventions. In 2013, these and other nutrition education programs delivered through Cornell Cooperative Extension reached more than 175,000 underserved families across New York.

“In general, we have lots of data suggesting that USDA nutrition education programs are working,” Dollahite said. “One of our goals is to develop more scientifically rigorous measures of success.”

Cornell won the USDA funding in a competitive grant process last summer. Dollahite believes the university succeeded thanks to “strong existing research and extension programs” and a “diverse team of researchers representing nutrition, health economics, behavioral economics, health communications and community-based nutrition education.”

“Our steering and advisory committees include nationally recognized experts from Cornell, Columbia, Harvard, Yale, Tufts and other top institutions, including all of the land-grant institutions in our region,” she added.

Cornell faculty members and extension staff affiliated with the center include Joan Paddock, nutritional sciences senior extension associate; Tisa Hill, nutritional sciences extension associate; David Just, professor of applied economics and management; Don Kenkel, professor of policy analysis and management; Jeff Niederdeppe, associate professor of communications; Rebecca Seguin, assistant professor of nutritional sciences; Debbie Sellers, director of research and evaluation for the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research; and Jennifer Tiffany, executive director of Cornell Cooperative Extension New York City.

Ted Boscia is director of communications for the College of Human Ecology.

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Joe Schwartz