Skip to main content

CHASS Sociologist to Lead $3 Million Grant to Root Out Factors Behind Childhood Obesity

NC State University has received a five-year, $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to study the root causes behind childhood obesity in low-income families. Sociologist Sarah Bowen will direct the research project whose goal is to track urban and rural families to better understand the factors – economic, social, cultural and environmental – that contribute to what has been called an “obesity epidemic” in the United States.

Children, low-income and minority populations are particularly at risk of being part of the obesity epidemic – those populations have seen the largest gains in obesity nationally.

Recent research on obesity has focused almost exclusively on individual behaviors,” says Dr. Bowen, an assistant professor of sociology. “While this is important, we also need to look at how broader structural factors contribute to these dramatic increases in obesity. How affordable and accessible are fresh fruits and vegetables in low-income neighborhoods? What time constraints on working families make it difficult to prepare healthy meals? Do low-income parents perceive their neighborhoods as safe for outdoor play and do their children have access to public spaces for physical activity? How do stores in low-income neighborhoods stock and market food?”

The researchers will follow families over a five-year period. The study will take place in Durham, Harnett and Lee counties, and will draw from families who are part of the Faithful Families: Eating Smart and Moving More project, which promotes nutrition education and healthy eating behaviors. The Faithful Families project is part of the USDA’s Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program, which aims to help low-income families make better decisions about healthy eating.

When the factors contributing to childhood obesity are better understood, Bowen and her research colleagues will work with community groups to develop common-sense structural and policy changes to help low-income families gain access to healthier food – and to safe places where kids can be physically active.

“Community members themselves will propose and help implement changes – whether it’s creating a community garden or a local farmer’s market or building a walking trail – to address the problem of childhood obesity and put our research into action,” Bowen says.

Bowen’s colleagues include Dr. Sinikka Elliott, an NC State sociologist, and Lorelei Jones, the coordinator of the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program in North Carolina. Dr. Susan Jakes, an extension assistant professor and family and consumer development specialist at NC State and Keith Baldwin, a horticulture extension specialist at North Carolina A&T State University, will also work on the project, as will David Hall, the coordinator of the Faithful Families project.

By Mick Kulikowski, NC State News Services