What’s Working to Help Kids Across America Eat Healthy?

Mar 9, 2016, 9:00 AM, Posted by

Healthy Eating Research expands its commitment to equity through a new funding opportunity that reserves awards for innovative studies focused on rural, American Indian and Asian/Pacific Islander populations.

Preschool girl drinks a carton of milk in a school setting.

The students at Native American Community Academy, a member of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Healthy Schools Program, believed their school should serve healthy lunches that incorporated foods indigenous to the Navajo culture. So, they set out to turn their idea into a reality.

The students had an ultimate goal in mind: convince their principal to hire a company that would provide these healthier, more traditional meals. But, first, they had to prove that this type of food service could be done.

They started with the basics. With a budget of no more than $2 per person, students headed to a local grocery store and purchased ingredients for a meal they would prepare on their own and serve to their teachers and administrators to demonstrate that offering healthy Native American food at school is both feasible and affordable.

Their menu for the day: vegetarian chili with beans, blue corn meal mush (a traditional Navajo dish), an organic fruit cup and a dish they called the “Beez Kneez,” which had squash, corn, green chili, garlic and onions. The meal received rave reviews. Not only did the principal agree to find a new food service company, she put the students in charge of the task.

This is just one of many stories that reinforce the important role schools play in teaching kids about nutrition and offering healthy meals, snacks and drinks. Among kids in underserved communities (like the students at Native American Community Academy), the role of schools is especially critical.

In recent years, school meals have become healthier. We’ve also seen a steady stream of encouraging news about childhood obesity rates leveling off or declining, but we know there is more work to be done. The progress we’ve seen in reducing childhood obesity is not reflected among low-income families and communities of color.

At RWJF, we’re working to build a Culture of Health that will help everyone in America live longer, healthier lives and that means ensuring that progress reaches every community across the country. This is why, for many years, RWJF has been working with Healthy Eating Research (HER), one of our national programs, to build evidence that will guide our efforts to help every child, especially those at greatest risk of overweight or obesity, achieve a healthy weight.

Today, RWJF announced a new $2.6 million funding opportunity available through HER. The grant awards will fund studies that have strong potential to drive progress in four areas related to nutrition: ensuring that all children enter kindergarten at a healthy weight; ensuring schools consistently offer students healthy foods and beverages; making healthy foods and beverages the affordable, available and desired choices in all neighborhoods and communities; and eliminating the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages among kids under five years old.

It will take a diverse mix of programs and policies to advance these objectives. HER is seeking innovative studies of the most promising approaches, including studies that:

  • examine the impact of federal nutrition programs like SNAP, WIC and the school lunch program;
  • examine the effects of healthy eating policies and practices in places where kids and families consume and buy foods outside of the home, like childcare sites, restaurants and corner stores; and
  • analyze how food and beverage industry practices influence what parents and kids buy and consume.

When it comes to making it easier for kids and families to eat healthy, HER is committed to understanding what’s working—and what’s hindering progress—in all types of communities. From urban to rural, North to South, and across race, ethnicity and income level, HER funds studies with the greatest likelihood to impact kids at high risk for obesity.

This year, HER is intensifying its commitment to equity. With its 10th round of funding, up to one-third of the grant money will be earmarked for studies focused on populations that have historically been the focus of few proposals submitted under HER’s calls—rural communities in the United States, including the Appalachian region, and populations of Asian/Pacific Islanders or American Indians.

The focus on equity extends beyond the people and communities studied; there are implications for the researchers, too. Like many of our other research grants, this opportunity includes an allocation for New Connections grants. This means funds are set aside specifically for researchers who historically have been disadvantaged and underrepresented in research disciplines.

RWJF’s New Connections grants have supported a range of projects through HER and other program areas to examine a wide array of health policy issues, including assessing best practices for teaching low-income families how to purchase and prepare healthy meals and studying racial and ethnic differences in kids’ asthma management.

By supporting a diverse group of investigators and research subjects, HER is helping to close gaps in the evidence base and inform new strategies that will ensure all children grow up at a healthy weight. We encourage others to follow its lead.

Tina Kauh is a Research-Evaluation-Learning unit program officer who evaluates the work of grantees, develops new research and evaluation programs, helps to develop and monitor performance indicators, and disseminates lessons learned. Read her full bio

Victoria Kumpuris Brown is a senior program officer who brings exceptional experience in connecting business and health care to the battle against childhood obesity. She believes that the Foundation will raise the bar on engaging businesses and activating the private sector in building a Culture of Health.