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Project aims to grow local farms, shrink childhood obesity

Cornell nutritional scientists, supported by a grant announced March 26 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, plan to test a recipe to lower childhood obesity while boosting the bottom line for farmers.

The multistate project, funded at $1 million this year and expected to total $5 million over five years, seeks to increase access to fresh produce for low-income families by subsidizing community-supported agriculture (CSA) shares and offering a nutrition education program focused on preparation of seasonal crops. Researchers will examine whether the intervention helps low-income children, who are at the highest risk for obesity, to eat more nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables instead of energy-dense foods and beverages.

More than one-third of U.S. youth are overweight or obese, and Americans consume only half of the USDA recommended daily intake of fruits and vegetables. Lowering barriers to CSAs, said principal investigator Rebecca Seguin, assistant professor in the Division of Nutritional Sciences, could improve eating behaviors, particularly once families gain the knowledge and confidence to cook with fresh produce. Furthermore, research suggests that CSAs, of which there are about 4,000 nationwide, could be more profitable for smaller-sized farms compared with traditional distribution methods.

“This innovative project will generate new knowledge about creating sustainable changes in the local food environment that increase access to healthier foods for low-income families as well as prompt behavioral changes that will help prevent childhood obesity,” Seguin said. “This project will also examine a viable framework for sustaining cost-offset CSAs as a strategy to strengthen local agricultural economies.”

The Cornell team will pair with farm and cooperative extension partners in New York, North Carolina, Washington and Vermont. With farmers, they will offer CSA subsidies and help them establish electronic Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) payments, while also providing business plan development and technical assistance for sustaining these models. Extension educators will teach hands-on cooking and preparation, particularly focusing on less familiar produce that may be included in CSA shares.

Researchers seek to reach 240 families and a dozen farms across the four states, conducting a randomized control trial to measure the effect of their intervention on household fruit and vegetable consumption, intake of energy-dense foods and beverages, parent cooking skills, children’s body mass index, and physical activity and other outcomes.

The project will also develop educational components, including a service-learning course at Cornell to teach undergraduate and graduate students how food systems are related to the prevention of obesity.

Funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the project includes collaborators at the University of North Carolina, East Carolina University, the University of Vermont and Battelle Memorial Institute in Seattle. It is part of the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Childhood Obesity Prevention Challenge Area authorized by the 2014 Farm Bill.

“It is critical that we make the effort to help our children be healthy kids, and develop into healthy adults,” said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

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

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