UC-Merced Takes Grassroots Approach To Reducing Obesity

MERCED — An NIH grant designed to help researchers build partnerships with community organizations could lead to a better understanding of the obesity epidemic, particularly in low-income Latino communities in Merced County.

“NIH is increasingly recognizing that to address many health issues, research needs to be more closely anchored in the communities affected by the health problem,” said Jan Wallander, a professor of psychological sciences at UC-Merced who co-wrote the grant proposal.

The three-year, $90,000 grant awarded to UC-Merced and the Merced County California Regional Obesity Prevention Program from NIH’s Child Health and Human Development Institute allows academics from various disciplines to engage directly with community members affected by obesity. 

“We know in general what contributes to obesity but this project is more tailored to this particular community and more generally the San Joaquin Valley,” said Wallander, one of five researchers connected with the project.  

“This grant is more about communicating and interacting with people who are affected,” he said. “Asking the questions, what can we really do to change this, what will work for you? Will you take advantage of a park if it is nearby or is there something else more likely to help you?”

According to the Merced County Department of Health, 70.9% of adults are overweight or obese compared with 61.6% of adults statewide. Latinos currently comprise 66.7% of the population under 18 years old and 55% of the overall population.

First Step: Latino Partnerships

The first step is to form partnerships with local organizations involved with health and Latino-related issues, Wallander said, and eventually have town hall-style meetings in neighborhoods affected by obesity.

“By connecting talented researchers with community partners and members, we hope to help reduce the number of people who are plagued by this serious problem,” Wallander said. “If community groups get to know us, they are more likely to engage with us in the future. This grant is to fund us developing these partnerships so research down the road on obesity can be more successful than it has so far.”

Researchers will also look at practices that have already served the community well, such as food trucks that bring fresh produce to a neighborhood when a larger grocery store is not available.

Claudia Corchado, program manager for the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program and lead community partner in the project, will help facilitate these meetings. She said the partnership will benefit future research and intervention efforts because there will be concrete evidence of the factors affecting obesity.

“First and foremost, now I can actually say, once we finish this piece of the project, we actually did grassroots research,” said Corchado. “The real key is that we now have a research university behind us. We want researchers to understand the challenges that our communities face, that it’s difficult to access healthy food or find safe environments for kids to exercise.”

Communities also need to know that UC Merced exists and is a designated Hispanic Serving Institution, said Corchado. “We want our residents to connect with UC.”

There are plenty of studies that delineate the reasons for obesity in poorer neighborhoods, but what is needed is an actual understanding of what the specific challenges are in improving health, Corchado said. For instance, sodas are often less expensive than bottled water and while there is a clear correlation between sugary beverages and obesity, some people don’t understand what a calorie is. “If you don’t know what a calorie is, how can you control your intake,” Corchado said. “We did presentations on sugary beverages to Head Start parents, and we were truly surprised that parents had not made the correlation.”

Multidisciplinary Approach To Fighting Obesity

The multidisciplinary approach to this project will lead to a more thorough understanding of communities affected by obesity, said public health professor Susana Ramirez. “This is the cutting edge of public health science. How do we change at all levels to fight obesity?”    

Ramirez said her research examines the influence of information on health behaviors in particular environments — from advertisements for fast food to conflicting news stories on causes of cancer. She is examining newspapers, newsletters, information from radio programs and other media to see what kinds of information people in Merced County are getting. What are people being told about health and is it factual or relevant, is it useful or destructive?

“We can tell people until they’re blue in the face they need to exercise and eat better, but at some point you have to think about environmental influences,” Ramirez said. “These might include unsafe neighborhoods, no playgrounds or cracked sidewalks, and if these structural constraints aren’t part of the story the media is telling, then how can regular citizens start advocating for positive changes.”   

Each researcher on this project brings different strengths, said sociology Professor Zulema Valdez. “We’re not just looking through one lens.” For instance, Valdez’s research focuses on unequal outcomes based on group identities and membership in particular communities. The outcome in this case is obesity and its disproportionate effect on the Latino community.

“It’s not an individual problem. It has to do with people of color living in areas where there’s limited access to health food and information that can help them change health outcomes,” she said. “One of the things I’m looking at is what are the conditions under which negative health outcomes affect a particular population.”

Valdez said the issue of obesity has to be studied from a more holistic perspective, from the household level up.

“This is a new kind of approach. When you bring a group of people into a room to have a conversation that is not predetermined, a lot can happen. We start to see patterns in what’s coming out of these interactions,” she said. “It’s an ambitious idea that requires a lot of preparation. And type A academics will learn how to take a backseat to the advisory board and the community and listen.”

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