$3.2 million grant supports SF State study of childhood obesity disparities

Associate Professor of Health Education Emma Sanchez-Vaznaugh

Associate Professor of Health Education Emma Sanchez-Vaznaugh

Results could influence federal and state health policies

Associate Professor of Health Education Emma Sanchez-Vaznaugh has been awarded a $3.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study how federal and state nutrition policies and community environments affect childhood health.  

Over the next five years, Sanchez-Vaznaugh and her team, including researchers at the University of Michigan, will investigate whether the policies — which attempt to improve school nutrition standards and reduce childhood obesity — are effective across different racial/ethnic populations. The study will also evaluate whether the policies are more effective when children attend school in neighborhoods with healthier food options than in neighborhoods with more fast food outlets.

“We hypothesize that the [federal and state nutrition] policies will be associated with improvements in body weight outcomes among children, but we know from our prior research that some schools have more healthy food in their communities and others do not. So these differences could enhance or undermine the effects of those policies,” said Sanchez-Vaznaugh.

The researchers will compare the body weights of fifth, seventh and ninth graders who attended California public schools during the periods before and after the policies were implemented. The study will link that data to the food outlets or restaurants located near the children’s schools during the same time frame to assess the role of the surrounding food environment. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) researchers in SF State’s Department of Geography & Environment will help collect data and map the location of food outlets near the schools.

Sanchez-Vaznaugh says socioeconomic status and race/ethnicity are important determinants of child health and related disparities. “One of the policies we are looking at could have the potential to reduce disparities in childhood obesity,” said Sanchez-Vaznaugh. “Given that two of our major public health goals are to eliminate health disparities and prevent obesity, there is a need for effective interventions that can prevent obesity early in life.”

Sanchez-Vaznaugh hopes her study will inform future policies. “We will look at interventions that aim to make changes in schools and that could even inform policy making at all levels,” she said. “Compared with interventions that encourage individuals to change their dietary behaviors, policies have the potential to make a large impact on many children by improving their food environments. The obesity epidemic is one of those types of issues that require effective policy-level interventions.”