Thinking Outside the Lunch Box

If the axiom “you are what you eat” holds true, then our children are in deep trouble. However, if one public health professor has her way, that’s all about to change.

by Olivia M. Thompson ’99

Public health is everyone’s health. It affects each and every one of us. It matters. No matter where you are.

That’s why, when I was a public health graduate student at Emory University, I didn’t think twice about heading to Hawaii for a summer health-education internship. Wow, what an amazing opportunity – and not just because I got to trade “Hotlanta” for the beautiful Hawaiian shores! Given the responsibility of implementing and evaluating major community programs designed to prevent and control both infectious and chronic diseases, I was taking the first big step in my public health career.

While I was in Hawaii, I aimed to reduce tobacco use, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unhealthy dietary behaviors.

To reduce morbidity and mortality (disease and death) from tobacco use, I toured the Hawaiian Islands in an unmarked van with a police officer and a team of young adults conducting tobacco stings on local tobacco retail outlets. The young adults tried to purchase tobacco products – and, if an employee failed to card them, he/she was fined $500 on the spot. As you might guess, this program was highly effective.

To reduce the incidence (new cases) and prevalence (existing cases) of STIs and related chronic diseases (e.g., cervical cancer), I again toured the Hawaiian Islands – this time in a marked van. I helped implement It Can Happen to You, a play designed to reach teenagers emotionally while educating them about ways to prevent pregnancy and STIs. The play’s evaluation data were positive, demonstrating that, at least post-performance, the teenagers’ knowledge and attitudes about pregnancy and STI prevention were markedly improved. The play was eventually defunded, however, as it was difficult to assess its impact on actual behavior.

Illustration by Britt Spencer

To reduce morbidity and mortality from unhealthy dietary behaviors, I went to underserved areas, primarily in Honolulu, and handed out brochures telling people to do things like eat fruits and vegetables and drink a lot of water. While on site, it struck me that there were mobile food trucks selling fast food (e.g., fried SPAM sandwiches and fries) for a mere dollar in nearly all the public spaces. Needless to say, my brochures went into the trash along with empty SPAM sandwich wrappers and fry containers. I concluded that we should not spend any more money developing brochures and instead hand out actual vegetables; we needed to change nutrition environments and not just tell people what to eat and drink. At the time, these conclusions raised quite a few eyebrows.

I never expected to significantly impact Hawaii’s public health systems in one summer. But, leaving Hawaii and heading home, I was determined to figure out how to impact public health systems for the better, in sustainable ways.

As a research fellow at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, I learned how to prevent and control chronic disease by changing systems, or environments and policies conducive (or not) to health. From there, I earned my Ph.D. in nutritional sciences with an emphasis in epidemiology and health policy, completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institutes of Health and joined the wild world of academia with the goal of not only teaching the next generation of public health leaders, but also creating programs, policies and initiatives designed to prevent and control chronic diseases such as cancers, heart diseases and stroke, diabetes and obesity.

And what better place to do that than at my alma mater? After all, the College of Charleston just happens to be in a state whose public health has a lot of room for improvement – especially when it comes to childhood obesity. While childhood obesity rates are epidemic throughout the United States, they are disproportionately high in the Southeast. The 2011 CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey shows that in South Carolina, nearly 30 percent of high school students were either overweight or obese and, alarmingly, 92 percent did not consume the recommended daily minimum of fruits and vegetables. Valid childhood obesity and dietary data are not systematically collected for children in middle or elementary schools, but data suggest that the percentages are equally high for younger children, if not higher.

Something big that South Carolina has going for it, however, is a strong “local foods” movement – which is a good thing because, in order to prevent and control chronic diseases such as obesity, we must adopt a healthful diet. Using the energy of the local foods movement as fuel, I recently launched a farm-to-school initiative at Charleston-area schools. Cropping up across the country, farm-to-school programs teach children where their food comes from and provide schools with the resources necessary to prepare and serve healthful, local foods. They stimulate local economies by creating a market for area farmers and make it possible for children to have consistent access to nutrient-packed foods, such as locally grown fruits and vegetables.

During the six-month planning phase of our comprehensive farm-to-school program, the College has worked with Lowcountry Local First, Clemson Extension Center and the S.C. Department of Agriculture to increase the supply of local foods. We designed a two-day Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification training for area farmers, and two farms are now GAP certified and ready to source their products to schools. And – thanks to a charitable grant from Boeing along with the hard work of the Charleston County School District, the Green Heart Program and Lowcountry Local First – the College’s farm-to-school program is being implemented this fall, piloting at Mitchell and Hunley Park Elementary Schools. Then, per funding, we will roll out an expanded program at 10 elementary schools in the Charleston Tri-County area starting in the fall of 2013. We hope that in the next five years the program will reach all Charleston Tri-County elementary schools.

By increasing availability of healthful, local foods and helping control childhood obesity, the College’s farm-to-school program aims to change policies and the behavioral environment in our communities. It is designed to be self-sustaining and scalable to school district, state and eventually regional levels and to spark a coordinated effort to change environments and policies that constrain healthful eating in South Carolina and beyond.

– Olivia M. Thompson ’99 is an assistant professor in the Department of Health and Human Performance.

1 comment

  • As a parent of a student from Charleston, I am so pleased to see the work that the college is undertaking. Nutrition is so important and how great to see a company like Boeing working with the college and Greenheart. This must have been lots of work to get started. I am glad to see the college supporting this effort.

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