Falk College Nutrition Professor, Tanya Horacek, Part of Team Awarded $4.9 Million USDA Grant for Childhood Obesity Prevention

Falk College associate professor of nutrition, Tanya Horacek, R.D., Ph.D., and Syracuse University are part of a 14-university team that has received a $4.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to empower college students to create obesity prevention programs for their peers as well as students in elementary and high schools.

The campaign, which will launch in August, is entitled, “Get Fruved.” It will harness the peer-to-peer interactions of more than 1,000 students who will work together to create interventions so students become more physically active. “Fruved” is a term that refers to fruits and vegetables. The behaviors students will address include healthy eating and physical activity as well as managing stress, emotional well-being, and the importance of positive social support systems. The students will also be advocates for environmental change on their campuses to support positive health behaviors. This project purposefully uses a non-diet approach to weight management and instead focuses on promoting healthy behavior and positive healthy body images.

The grant, which is led by University of Tennessee (UT), Knoxville assistant professor of nutrition, Sarah Colby, R.D., Ph.D., was funded by the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). Multiple student organizations from different universities with specialty interests that include nutrition, media arts, dance, media, kinesiology, public health and business will partner with researchers to develop and implement the project. Collegiate 4-H students from different states will work together to develop and lead creative, exciting, and interactive social marketing campaigns that will include fruit- and vegetable- costumed characters, social media, special campus events, a study website (www.fruved.com), and online education.

Dr. Horacek and her team will lead the environmental audit and analysis for this USDA grant. “Over the past five years, we have been working to refine our tools to evaluate how supportive the environment is for obesity prevention. The audit evaluates policies, walkability/bikeability, the food, vending and dining environment, recreation facilities and programs. The results of these audits will help each campus to advocate for the changes they need and desire in their environment to enhance their obesity prevention efforts,” says Horacek.

Ultimately the project will continue with high school students working with middle school students to develop and implement the project on middle school campuses and then middle school students working with elementary students to develop and implement the project in elementary schools.

This project is a community-based participatory research project (CBPR). In CBPR the students are equal partners with faculty researchers in defining the problem, collecting information, interpreting data, and developing solutions in pursuit of socially relevant outcomes. The students are recognized as experts in their own right and their knowledge is equally valued as is academic expertise. This approach will result in more acceptable, culturally-relevant, and effective approaches that can produce long-lasting, real-world, obesity prevention solutions.

This research builds on more than 20 years of collaborative multi-state research addressing eating behaviors. The project is in collaboration with Extension and 4-H partners from UT, West Virginia University, South Dakota State University, and the University of Florida. The other universities that Syracuse University and UT will partner with are University of Florida, South Dakota State University, West Virginia University, Kansas State University, Auburn University, New Mexico State University, University of Maine, Rutgers University, University of Nebraska, University of Rhode Island, University of New Hampshire and Tuskegee University.

Horacek’s research interests also include evaluating theory-based nutrition education/counseling interventions, explaining the mediating factors influencing dietary intake and intervention effectiveness, conducting collaborative ecological program development, and evaluating dietetics education effectiveness. Over the past 17 years, she has worked with this multi-state research group to understand young adults’ stages of change for fruit and vegetable intake and conducted a USDA-IFAFS-funded intervention to improve low-income young adults’ fruit and vegetable intake using a stage-based intervention. Recently, they finished two USDA-NRI funded research projects to prevent obesity using a web-based non-diet approach among college students. A member of the SU faculty since 2004, Horacek’s Ph.D. dissertation from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln was entitled, “The Effect of Nutrition Education & the Differences in Dietary Intake & Factors Influencing Intake According to Personality Preferences for a Sample of College Students.”