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Researchers at the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention are working as part of a national project to study whether making fresh produce easily accessible to low-income families will reduce childhood obesity and increase income for local farmers.

The multistate project, funded at $1 million this year and expected to total $5 million over five years, seeks to increase access to fresh produce for low-income families by subsidizing community-supported agriculture (CSA) shares and offering a nutrition education program focused on preparation of seasonal crops. Researchers will examine whether the intervention helps low-income children, who are at the highest risk for obesity, to eat more nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables instead of energy-dense foods and beverages.

The project is based at Cornell University, and will partner with Alice Ammerman and her students in the Department of Nutrition, Gillings School of Global Public Health, and at the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, as well as colleagues at East Carolina University. There will also be research teams based in New York, Washington state, and Vermont. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is funding the project.

“This research effort is focused on creating and testing sustainable changes in the local food environment ultimately designed to address childhood obesity by increasing access to healthier food among low income families,” said Ammerman. In addition, the hope is to demonstrate an effective strategy to strengthen local agricultural economies through developing new markets via cost-offset CSAs. “

More than one-third of U.S. youth are overweight or obese, and Americans consume only half of the USDA recommended daily intake of fruits and vegetables. “Lowering barriers to CSAs,” said principal investigator Rebecca Seguin, assistant professor in the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell, “could improve eating behaviors, particularly once families gain the knowledge and confidence to cook with fresh produce.” Furthermore, research suggests that CSAs, of which there are about 4,000 nationwide, could be more profitable for smaller-sized farms compared with traditional distribution methods.

Researchers will partner with farmers to offer CSA subsidies and help them establish electronic Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) payments, while also providing business plan development and technical assistance for sustaining these models. Extension educators will teach hands-on cooking and preparation, particularly focusing on less familiar produce that may be included in CSA shares.

Researchers seek to reach 240 families and a dozen farms across the four states, with 2-4 of them in NC, conducting a randomized control trial to measure the effect of their intervention on household fruit and vegetable consumption, intake of energy-dense foods and beverages, parent cooking skills, children’s body mass index, and physical activity and other outcomes.

Funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the project includes collaborators at the University of North Carolina, East Carolina University, the University of Vermont and Battelle Memorial Institute in Seattle. It is part of the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Childhood Obesity Prevention Challenge Area authorized by the 2014 Farm Bill.

“It is critical that we make the effort to help our children be healthy kids, and develop into healthy adults,” said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

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