Jessica Soldavini, a graduate research assistant at the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention (HPDP), has received a prestigious predoctoral fellowship from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). Soldavini is a doctoral candidate in nutrition at the Gillings School of Global Public Health whose dissertation research will investigate strategies to address food insecurity and improve dietary quality among low-income populations.
The fellowship, which provides $119,997 in financial support over two years, will allow her to complete her dissertation research and to pursue professional development opportunities related to nutrition research, education, and policy.
“This fellowship is one of many avenues through which Jessica’s innovative applied research and commitment to community engagement will benefit people in North Carolina and enable her to develop effective models that can be used across the country,” said Alice Ammerman, PhD, the director of HPDP and Soldavini’s adviser as a professor of nutrition.
Soldavini’s dissertation project focuses on a nutrition and cooking education program for children. Her research will investigate whether participating in the program can result in children enjoying fruits and vegetables more, feeling more confident cooking and making healthy choices, and actually eating healthier and cooking more often.
“Children in the United States are not meeting Dietary Guidelines recommendations,” said Soldavini. “Over time, we have seen a decline in preparing and eating meals at home as well as opportunities for children to learn how to cook. This is concerning because cooking and eating home-cooked meals is associated with healthier eating patterns. This fellowship will provide support to address these important issues in the context of a nutrition and cooking education program for children.”
Since 2015, Soldavini has worked as a graduate research assistant with No Kid Hungry North Carolina, a child hunger initiative at HPDP which addresses food insecurity by increasing access to underutilized federal child nutrition programs that provide school breakfasts, summer meals, and afterschool meals. Soldavini has been especially involved with supporting federal summer nutrition programs, which provide free summer meals to children in low-income areas.
After joining No Kid Hungry NC as a research assistant, Soldavini added an afterschool nutrition education program to their offerings. Cooking Matters for Kids, which she continues to lead, teaches third through fifth graders how to make healthy food choices and prepare low-cost, healthy meals and snacks. Through hands-on classes, children learn basic cooking skills, practice interpreting nutrition labels, and learn how to make recipes healthier. Her dissertation research will build on her work with the program.
“There are numerous organizations across the country providing cooking education programs to children; however, there is limited research looking at the effectiveness of these programs at improving dietary intake,” said Soldavini. “I’m excited for the opportunity to build off of the work I have done with the Cooking Matters for Kids program and conduct this research to gain a better understanding of the type of impact that these programs can have.”
Soldavini also plans to use support from her fellowship to create opportunities for North Carolina college students to connect with federal nutrition programs. Working with both No Kid Hungry NC and the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, Soldavini will create resources for summer meal sites who want to recruit college students as volunteers and a training for students that orients them to how the Summer Nutrition Program works and how they can be involved. She will also create 15-20 internships each semester for UNC students who want to work with summer meal sites or provide nutrition and cooking education to children in afterschool programs.
To Soldavini, college students and under-resourced meal program sites are a perfect match. The sites need support, and, as volunteers, students can gain real-world experience working with programs that fight hunger. Having recruited and mentored nearly 100 student volunteers to lead Cooking Matters for Kids classes and provide nutrition education at summer meal sites, she has seen firsthand how those experiences help students grow.
“I’ve noticed that a lot of college students are interested in food insecurity but aren’t aware of many of the ways that they can help,” said Soldavini. “In my past work with students, I’ve seen them learn about nutrition and cooking skills alongside the kids they’re working with. It’s also got them thinking about future career opportunities, whether they’re students in nutrition, social work, or even an unrelated field.”
NIFA fellowships also include support for professional development. Soldavini is planning a career in academia. She hopes to teach and conduct research about food insecurity, federal nutrition programs, nutrition policy, and nutrition education.
This spring, Soldavini partnered with UNC School of Government Professor Dr. Maureen Berner to present research about food insecurity among college students at the annual symposium for the Southeastern University Consortium on Hunger, Poverty, and Nutrition. Over the next two years of her fellowship, she plans to continue participating in the consortium, which connects researchers like herself with federal nutrition program officials. She also plans to take part in programs or courses that are offered through the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning, which trains graduate students in evidence-based teaching practices that they can use in their future careers as faculty.
Watch this video from No Kid Hungry NC to learn more about Cooking Matters for Kids and hear Jessica Soldavini talk about the work she does with the program in Orange County, N.C.