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leading through cooperation: the center for weight and health

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In its first five years, CNR’s Center for Weight and Health has emerged as a national leader in the prevention of obesity in children and adults—precisely because it draws on Cooperative Extension’s unique ability to foster community empowerment.

“We view ourselves as a community center without walls––anyone with an interest in addressing issues related to body weight can work with the Center on relevant projects, regardless of their department, campus, institution, or county,” said co-director Sharon Fleming, a professor in the Department of Nutritional Science and Toxicology. They may be academics at a university or government institution, administrators within institutes or programs, or residents who deliver programs at the local level.”

“We encourage communities to learn about the problems they are facing, and let them decide how they want to respond,” added Cooperative Extension Nutrition Education Specialist Joanne Ikeda, co-director of the Center. “We’ve found that if a group decides what changes to make, these changes will be permanent.”

One of the ways that the Center for Weight and Health accomplishes this is through an educational kit that guides local participants through a planning process, using five initial meetings. The kit, which is now used nationally, contains agendas, videotapes, activities, and a decision-making process. By the end of the five sessions, the group has evolved into a coalition that has determined the most effective and immediate ways to address childhood obesity in their communities.

“Some communities work with the school districts to replace the contents of school vending machines; others build sidewalks and install playground equipment in parks to encourage more exercise. Currently we have 22 coalitions in California, and Michigan just picked up our program, adapting it to their own needs,” Ikeda explained.

The success of the Center for Weight and Health is closely tied to its Extension roots. “Cooperative Extension offers a statewide communication network,” said CE Nutritional Specialist Patricia Crawford. “This system allows us to take advantage of infrastructure, expertise, and opportunities at all levels—federal, state, and local.”

One example is a new nutrition workgroup, chaired by Crawford in cooperation with the CE advisors throughout the state, which explores the relationship between food shortage and obesity. “It’s counterintuitive to think that people who have too little food are the heaviest, but we have found that lack of income often leads to erratic food consumption,” explained Crawford.

“We just got an Economic Research Service (ERS) grant to do ground-breaking research on the differences between low-income women who didn’t have enough food when they were growing up and those who did, and how they parent their children with regard to food. It could change how we educate parents about nutrition,” she said.

“The advisors are excited about this research because it has enormous potential import to the communities they serve,” said Crawford. “People throughout the state are collecting data. Without this kind of active partnership, projects such as these simply could not be done."

-Susan Piper

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