May We Recommend the Vegetables?
Published in TC Today - Volume 38, No. 1
A new TC center funded by Laurie M. Tisch guides government policy on food
By NANETTE MAXIM
As the battle heats up over the renewal of the federal Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act, the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy at Teachers College is playing a major role on Capitol Hill as New York City’s advocate for the legislation, which ensures food access for low-income children and families.
Established last year within TC’s Program in Nutrition through a gift from the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund, the Center is emerging as an important player on city, state and federal food and nutrition policy. The new Center works on multiple fronts to increase demand for healthful foods, com¬bat the overabundance of unhealthful ones and promote a sustainable food system.
The WIC reauthorization effort exempli¬fies the Center’s collaborative approach, involving government and community partners — along with TC alumni in the field. The Center is working with the nonprofit City Harvest, whose Director of Policy and Government Relations is Kate McKenzie (M.S. ’02), and the office of U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, where Lauren Au (M.S. ’10) is a key aide.
“Our ultimate aim is to change the behaviors most connected with health problems,” says Tisch Center Executive Director Pamela Koch. “We emphasize education to build demand for healthful, affordable and ecologically sustainable food, and we emphasize policy change to create environments where healthy choices are made easy. When education and access work synergistically, people embrace healthful eating.”
HOW DOES YOUR GARDEN GROW?
Nutrition education programs abound these days, but which ones are really making a difference? To find out, Kate Gardner, the Center’s first doctoral fellow in nutrition education, is working with initiatives like Grow to Learn NYC, the city pro¬gram that provides mini-grants to schools and maintains a registry of school gardens, to identify the most successful gar¬dens and the factors that make them effective.
“A lot of public funding is going into school gardens, so Kate’s research has huge policy implications,” says Koch. In fact, the nation’s future depends on work like Gardner’s.
“This is the generation of children who face the very real possibility of having shorter lifespans than their parents,” says Isobel Contento, TC’s Mary Swartz Rose Professor of Nutrition and Education, who coordinates the College’s Program in Nutrition and is Director of the Tisch Center. “One-third are expected to develop diabetes, with consequences that will include workplace absenteeism, poor vision and difficulty in walking. So it’s critically important that we develop and evaluate education and policy approaches to shape more positive outcomes.”
Advertising by soft drink and packaged food manufacturers, urban development that has created “food deserts” where few stores sell fresh produce, and the elimination of meaningful physical education from many schools are also factors, increasing the need for a comprehensive approach.
“We’re trying to build a national model for health-promoting schools,” says Koch.
The Center’s Kathleen Porter (Ph.D. ’13) has conducted a first-ever study of the scope and reach of nutrition education programs that are provided by a range of government, university and nonprofits to New York City public elementary schools. Porter found that only 39 percent of public elementary schools in the three boroughs studied had such programs and virtually none were reaching high-need schools. She also looked at a subset of effective nutrition education programs “to discover what schools were doing to get the programs and make them work, and then how they were making them stay.”
Porter’s research, released this spring, “could be a model that’s used in the rest of the country,” Koch says.
MEASURING IMPACT, INFLUENCING POLICY
“Prevention is important, and food is the best medicine,” says Heewon Lee (Ph.D. ’09), Adjunct Assistant Professor of Nutrition Education, who manages and analyzes all of the data generated by research studies at the Center and the Program in Nutrition.
In one project, Contento and Koch are assessing the added impact of “wellness policy” in 20 New York City schools that also offer a classroom nutrition program developed by TC. The policy included making foods and snacks brought from home more healthful and having 10-minute dance breaks twice a day.
Children in the study, which was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, have been evaluated before and after the intervention for changes in height, weight and body fat; eating behaviors; levels of physical activity; and improvements in knowledge of healthful nutrition and fitness practices.
Preliminary results of the USDA-funded study found “most of the behaviors were predicted by whether [the children] perceived them as habits,” Lee says. “The more regular the habit — whether that was eating well or eating junk food — the more they were apt to stick with it.” Among the positive outcomes were reduced recreational time devoted to TV and video games and (for some participants) drinking fewer sugary beverages.
On the community front, TC served as the evaluators for the New York City Food and Fitness Partnership, funded by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation program, which works with resi¬dents and community organizations in areas such as central Brooklyn to create more healthful food outlets and spaces for physical activity.
And now, reflecting its raison d’être to unite the many organizations working on food issues, the Center is broadening its impact by serving as a resource for other grantees of the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund’s Healthy Food & Community Change Initiative, including City Harvest, Local Initiatives Support Corporation and Wholesome Wave.
“Suddenly a lot of food policy groups have emerged,” says Contento, adding that what sets the Tisch Center apart is that where “the other programs focus primarily on increasing access to healthful food, we’re linking food access and education.”
Koch agrees. “We’re good at and are known for developing innovative educational programs that help children understand the food system and their place within it. And now we’re layering on policy. We won’t lose that core.”
She’s All About Access
When philanthropist Laurie M. Tisch, Vice Chair of TC’s Board of Trustees, founded the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund in 2007, her vision was that access to education, the arts, services and, of course, healthy food, “should not be determined by zip code.” The Illumination Fund consistently champions innovative approaches to address all of these issues and to illuminate strategies that can transform the urban landscape.
TC’s century-plus of influencing nutrition education and policy
TC has led the fight for better nutrition since 1909, when a young faculty member named Mary Swartz Rose taught the world’s first courses in nutrition education. During the 1970s Joan Dye Gussow, now Professor Emerita, introduced the world to the notion of locally sustainable food systems, influencing current prominent food writers such as Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman.
Isobel Contento, the Mary Swartz Rose Professor of Nutrition Education and author of the first-ever nutrition education textbook, has focused the field on overcoming motivational and environmental barriers to healthful eating. She also is at the forefront of an effort to create national standards for nutrition education.
TC’s Program in Nutrition has produced high-profile leaders in the field, including Christina Economos (M.S. ’91), The New Balance Chair in Childhood Nutrition at Tufts University and Director of the nonprofit ChildObesity180; former TC faculty member Toni Liquori (Ed.D. ’96), now Executive Director of School Food FOCUS; and Ellie Krieger (M.A. ’95), The New York Times bestselling author and host of Food Network’s “Healthy Appetite.”
“We can’t change the world all by ourselves,” Contento says, “but we’re definitely spreading seeds of change.”