University of Texas receives $5 million USDA grant to fight childhood obesity

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 the Texas AgriLife Extension Service, Texas A&M University and the University of Texas.

"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 Dr. Judy Warren, AgriLife Extension special initiatives coordinator and principal investigator.

"We're bringing together a multi-disciplinary team capable of evaluating the approach to determine whether the programs change levels of child obesity, are cost-effective and are sustainable. We are building on the Coordinated School Health program required in public schools."

A leading factor in the effort is that 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."

She said that AgriLife Extension -- with its educational expertise in horticulture, nutrition, parenting, family resource management and agriculture economics -- has a history of "reaching into the families" (with limited resources) in practical ways that can help change lives for the better.

"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."

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 University of Texas School of Public Health and the Michael and Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living, according to Dr. Alexandra Evans, co-principal investigator.

"This study will build on our current knowledge about effective childhood obesity interventions and will hopefully provide evidence-based strategies for future projects. The center's team will lead all research activities for this project," Evans said.

Joining AgriLife Extension and the University of Texas 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.

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