Fatemeh Malekian and Charisma Deberry
Louisiana youth are more likely to be overweight or obese than their peers in other states. Some children consume a majority of their calories at school (breakfast, lunch and snack) and depend on school physical education programs for adequate fitness lessons. Schools sell many foods and drinks outside the school meal program. A competitive food is defined as any food items sold in competition to the reimbursable school meal. These so-called competitive foods are widely available to students through a la carte lines in the cafeteria, vending machines, school stores, snack bars and other venues. These snack foods are often high in fat, sugar, salt and calories and have little nutritional value. This glaring health inequality needs attention in schools, particularly where many of the students are disadvantaged and reside in food deserts. A food desert is an area with a substantial share of residents with low incomes and lack of access to a grocery store or other healthy, affordable fresh fruit and vegetable options. Lack of access to healthy food options has a disproportionally negative impact on underserved students.
The Southern University Agricultural Research and Extension Center programs are specifically targeted to address the scientific, technological, social, economic and cultural needs of Louisiana citizens. Louisiana is consistently ranked as one of the most obese states in America. Being obese or overweight is associated with increased risk for chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some forms of cancer. Obesity in adolescence often continues into adulthood.
Partnering with a local nonprofit organization, 100 Black Men Inc., Southern researchers launched “Let’s Move the 100 Way” in January 2013 to conduct a research and extension program on obesity, nutrition and health of middle school students at Crestworth Learning Academy, a school in the Scotlandville neighborhood in Baton Rouge. “Let’s Move the 100 Way” sought to increase nutrition knowledge and encourage children to eat a variety of healthy foods and get the students involved in structured physical activity.
Crestworth Learning Academy was selected as the program site because of the disadvantaged background of the student population and its location in Scotlandville, an area classified as a food desert. The program was designed to encourage children to make healthy lifestyle and food choices.
Crestworth administrators granted access to the entire student population twice a week for “Let’s Move,” which was conducted as an in-service enrichment offering during the spring semester in 2013.
One part of the study involved observing the choices made by students for several days at the school cafeteria. The observation was conducted to gain insight about the participants’ daily consumption and food choices.
Using the intervention method of research, an instructor conducted 13 nutrition and health education lessons. These 50-minute lessons included food preparation and food safety. Hands-on activities such as making healthy trail mixes, measuring sugar in sodas, measuring fat in fried foods and reading nutrition facts from popular food labels were incorporated. In some classes fresh fruits and vegetables and water were served. After class sessions, handouts and other nutrition information were sent home with students.
In addition, a weekly physical fitness program was developed for the school. Because of lack of equipment, the 100 Black Men organization provided approximately $4,000 of new sporting equipment and class supplies. The physical activity coach from the school and a kinesiology student from Louisiana State University guided students in activities and using the new equipment.
Pre- and posttests were completed for the program by 131 participating students. A majority, 58 percent, of the students were male with 42 percent females. The students were between the ages 11-17 years old in grades six through eight. All student participants identified themselves as African-American.
The participants’ knowledge of nutrition and food label recognition was tested before and after the 13-session series. A separate class of students that did not have the intervention was also tested to compare scores. The results showed significant gains in knowledge for the 131 participants. Informal observations of the students indicated that they tended to choose healthier snacks toward the end of the sessions, and they increased their physical activity.
The study was a small-scale trial that depended on Crestworth administrators and undergraduate staff assistants without formal research backgrounds to follow a research protocol. The lack of research staff training may have contributed to a lack of compliance by school administrators to the research design. The student staff workers may have reported implementing more of the intervention than they actually did to please the researchers. Another limitation was the use of an underperforming school as a test site; many students are far behind grade-level in core subject areas, making it difficult to teach enrichment courses. The varying ages of student’s participants (11-17) may have affected student concentration and ability to retain taught lessons.
Future Research and Intervention
Future studies should be directed toward the question of whether reducing access to competitive foods compared to the consumption of locally grown fruits and vegetables has long-term positive effects on obesity and other health issues among African-American students. Also, the surrounding environment in the African-American communities can contribute to the overall dietary habits of the children and adolescents in the aforementioned populations. Future studies should focus on ethnic disparities and why they exist as well as how to effectively implement the competitive food policies in the African-American schools, especially in the middle and high schools where access to the competitive foods tends to be greater. An increase in programs such as the mobile market sponsored by Big River Economic Development Alliances, mobile pantries and community gardens would provide easier access to fresh fruits and vegetables in food desert areas.
Fatemeh Malekian is a professor and Charisma Deberry is a research associate in the Southern University Agricultural Center.
(This article was published in the fall 2013 issue of Louisiana Agriculture magazine.)