In January, as one of the first major initiatives of the Academic Vision, the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity will move to UConn from Yale University. The move will allow Rudd faculty to expand their work and build new collaborations with UConn experts on nutrition, public policy, psychology, agriculture, economics, and obesity.
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Sharing seasonal dishes and family favorites is a tradition for many during the holiday season. Yet the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day highlight a dichotomy between the haves and have-nots that is the focus of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity and its director, Marlene B. Schwartz.
The Rudd Center, which is moving from Yale to UConn in January, has an international reputation for conducting research on childhood obesity, nutrition, food policy, and how snacks, cereals, and sugary drinks are marketed to children.
The Center has also begun to focus on the issue of food insecurity, the term used to describe the uncertainty an individual or family may have about where their next meal will come from, an issue that can affect proper nutrition and diet.
“As public awareness about the importance of a healthy diet has increased, there have been societal changes in behavior,” says Schwartz, who is also a senior research scientist at UConn’s Center for Health, Intervention, and Prevention (CHIP). “However, in many cases, only affluent families can afford to improve their diets, which means that health disparities could become worse.”
Some people manage to eat a nutritious diet despite living in an environment where they are surrounded by inexpensive, convenient, highly palatable, unhealthy food. But those people are a very small minority. — Marlene Schwartz, Rudd Center
One of the challenges faced by health professionals who want to use public policy as a tool toward improving the nation’s diet is the American belief in individualism, the notion that people can easily control their own behavior no matter what the circumstances, and should be held responsible for the consequences of their food choices, she says. Yet such thinking does not reflect reality.
“Some people manage to eat a nutritious diet despite living in an environment where they are surrounded by inexpensive, convenient, highly palatable, unhealthy food. But those people are a very small minority,” she says. “Policies are needed to change the current default food environment. Our position is that if you want people to eat healthier food, you have to make it more available and less expensive. You need to market the healthy food and make sure it is high quality and palatable, and you need to stop making it compete with junk food.”
Schwartz says the Rudd Center’s move to UConn will provide increased opportunities for collaboration across disciplines for the Center’s researchers, offering resources in academic areas not available in New Haven, such as agricultural and resource economics, nutrition, and public policy.
In the past, the Rudd Center has had only one registered dietician on staff, but now the faculty of the Department of Nutritional Sciences in the College of Agriculture, Health, and Natural Resources will offer a wealth of expertise in nutrition for the Center’s research. Issues the Rudd Center touches upon also could involve expertise found in the UConn Schools of Law, Business, and Medicine, and Schwartz says she expects collaborative relationships will form among faculty in those areas.
“We’ve collaborated with all of the professional schools at Yale, and we want to do the same thing at UConn,” she notes. “The interesting thing about food policy is that there are roles for medicine, law, and business – you need nearly every field that influences the food environment and human behavior to develop sustainable solutions.”
With a wider array of resources available for research, Schwartz says it will be possible to build upon some of the studies the Rudd Center has focused on local populations, such as a current four-year study of school wellness policies, student health, and academic achievement with a cohort of middle school students in New Haven.
“One surprising finding was that a significant number of students report eating less than they wanted to because there wasn’t enough food at home,” Schwartz says. “It is important to recognize that the school district does an impressive job feeding all of these children a free nutritious breakfast and lunch every single school day. But schools can’t solve the problem of childhood hunger alone.”
At UConn, Schwartz says she hopes to look at the problem of child hunger at the state level, and try to understand what can be done to get not just any type of food to children, but nutritious food that will help them grow and stay healthy.
People are often surprised to learn that childhood obesity and food insecurity can exist in the same community, family, and even the same child. Just because a child is taking in enough, or even too many calories, that doesn’t mean the child is receiving adequate nutrition. The Center is interested in exploring a comprehensive assessment of diet, health, and food access statewide. Some school districts track some of these variables systematically, but most do not.
“That’s something I’d like to see change. The first step in helping these children is being able to find them,” she says. “We need to track children’s health within the state so that we can create policies that will meet the needs of different communities.
Currently, the medical records parents must turn in when their child enters day care and school are still paper-based. “We need to move into a more sophisticated public health surveillance system,” says Schwartz, “so that we know where to put our resources to reach the most children and families in need.”