Exploring Environmental and Policy Strategies to Promote Healthy Eating Among Children

A profile of nutrition scientist Mary Story, PhD

    • December 4, 2007

Nutrition scientist Mary Story, a leader in the field of childhood obesity and director of Healthy Eating Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, recently received a Medallion Award from the American Dietetic Association in recognition of her service to and leadership of the dietetics profession.

The Issue: Over the past few decades, we have dramatically changed the way we live, learn, work and play. Children are now exposed to more high-calorie junk food, eat fewer fruits and vegetables, and have fewer opportunities to be physically active. As a result, nearly 23 million youth in the United States are either overweight or obese.

The study of environmental influences on children's eating habits and weight is still a young field, and insights about the most feasible and effective policies for promoting healthy eating are continuing to emerge. Mary Story, Ph.D., R.D., has been a pioneer in developing and leading this area of research.

Grantee Background: Mary Story began studying obesity in 1980, long before it became the serious public health threat it is today. Story, associate dean for students and a professor of epidemiology and community health in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota and an adjunct professor of pediatrics at the university, first studied obesity in adolescents on the Cherokee reservation in North Carolina as part of her doctorate in nutrition science.

Story has published 325 journal articles on child and adolescent nutrition and childhood obesity prevention, as well as 35 book chapters. She serves or has served on numerous advisory committees and expert panels related to childhood obesity for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Institute of Medicine (IOM), National Institutes of Health and other national organizations. She is past president of the Food and Nutrition section of the American Public Health Association; the Public Health Nutrition practice group of the American Dietetic Association; and the Association of Faculties of Graduate Programs in Public Health Nutrition. She is currently on the IOM standing committee on childhood obesity prevention.

Initially, Story studied the food choices and food behavior of children and adolescents. “Early on, I focused on individual behavior change and classroom nutrition education, but I realized that people can have knowledge and awareness of the problem, but they can't act on it unless the environment is conducive to a healthy lifestyle,” she says.

“Obesity was a health issue 25 years ago, but today, it is one of the major public health challenges facing the United States,” Story continues. “Failing to stem and reverse the obesity epidemic will leave numerous young people and the nation as a whole to face the staggering consequences of obesity.”

Grantee Approach: Healthy Eating Research (HER) supports research on environmental and policy strategies to promote healthy eating among children. In particular, the program focuses on black, Latino, American Indian and Alaska Native, Asian-American and Pacific Islander children, and children living in low-income communities who are at highest risk for obesity.

Through HER the past four years, RWJF has awarded 58 grants with an additional 14 proposals recommended for funding. The studies have focused primarily on food policies and environments in schools and child care settings, access to healthy foods in communities, food and beverage marketing and early menu-labeling efforts. Study findings have been published in professional journals, and informed policy through legislative hearings and briefings. HER also has developed eight peer-reviewed research briefs and syntheses on a variety of topics, including food marketing, competitive foods in schools, and sugar-sweetened beverages and taxes. In addition, HER has organized two major invitational conferences on agricultural policy, food systems, public health and childhood obesity.

“This is an incredible opportunity to make a difference,” says Story. “Healthy Eating Research builds the evidence and data to inform the most effective policies and programs to reduce childhood obesity.”

Story is particularly excited about bringing together researchers from different disciplines to tackle childhood obesity. She hopes that economists, nutritionists, physicians, behavioral scientists, physical activity experts, and business and marketing specialists will participate in the program and work together on research projects.

“We need to build a multidisciplinary and diverse field of researchers to identify solutions for environmental and policy changes to reverse childhood obesity,” Story says. “This effort is much broader than any one person or discipline trying to solve it.”

In October 2009 at the Food and Nutrition Conference & Expo, Story will be presented with an ADA Medallion Award. Given annually, the award honors individuals who have shown dedication to the high standards of the dietetics profession through active participation, leadership and devotion to serving others in dietetics and allied health fields. She has also been inducted into the University of Minnesota’s Academy of Excellence in Health Research, an elite group of 26 scientists—less than one percent of the faculty.

RWJF Perspective: RWJF's Healthy Eating Research program is part of the Foundation's efforts to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic by 2015. These efforts include improving access to affordable, healthy foods and increasing opportunities for physical activity in schools and communities across the nation.

"The Healthy Eating Research Program provides decision-makers and key policy-makers with evidence they can use to improve children's nutrition and access to healthy foods,” says C. Tracy Orleans, Ph.D., Robert Wood Johnson Foundation distinguished fellow and senior scientist.

“Working in collaboration with other national research funders, we are building solid evidence for action. HER is helping determine what the biggest contributors to the childhood obesity epidemic are, and which interventions work and which don't,” adds Orleans. “Our efforts must be rooted in research that shows us the most effective means for making change. And we believe that the vision and leadership of pioneers like Dr. Mary Story are critical to the nation's progress.”