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Maryland Receives USDA Childhood Obesity Prevention Grant for School-Based “Wellness Champions” Intervention

Dr. Brit Saksvig, research associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics in the University of Maryland School of Public Health, is a co-investigator on a new project focused on reducing childhood obesity in Maryland through the promotion of healthier school environments. Led by Dr. Erin Hager, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, and funded with a $943,000 grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the project focuses on enhancing school-level implementation of Local Wellness Policies (LWPs) in 30 elementary and middle schools from five school systems in Maryland. Congress mandated the creation and implementation of LWPs as part of the Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

Saksvig,Brit

[Photo: Dr. Brit Saksvig]

The interdisciplinary research team includes faculty from the University of Maryland School of Medicine (SOM) in Baltimore, and the School of Public Health (SPH), the College of Arts and Humanities (ARHU) and Extension (UME) at the University of Maryland, College Park. The Maryland State Department of Education and the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DHMH) are also partners.

The intervention builds upon the LWPs to develop leader/advocates among school teachers and students who will become “wellness champions” and lead wellness teams trained in the tenets of health literacy, so that messages about healthy behaviors are tailored appropriately for different groups.

The research team will examine the impact of the “Wellness Champions for Change” program on student outcomes, including diet, physical activity and obesity through a randomized controlled trial. They will also investigate the role that home and school neighborhood environments may play in the differential success of school wellness policies on different student outcomes.

In the final years of this five-year project, the research team will work with extension experts with the Healthy Food Choices in Schools Community of Practice to disseminate the Wellness Champions for Change curricula for teachers and student champions across the state.

The Wellness Champions for Change project is one of six projects funded for a total of almost $4 million by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to help fight obesity and improve the health of our nation’s children. This funding is available through the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), authorized by the 2014 Farm Bill and administered by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).