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Students tackle major issue for minorities

In a field dominated mostly by Caucasian women, officials hope a new scholarship will encourage minority students in human nutrition to combat the growing problem of childhood obesity in minority populations.

This fall, Ohio State and Columbus State Community College will partner to provide the new scholarship. It is part of a USDA Multicultural Scholars Program training grant given to the College of Education and Human Ecology at OSU. It will award $6,500 a year to four chosen applicants who demonstrate a desire to research and develop solutions to childhood obesity in minority communities.

The money is awarded specifically to help combat two current problems within the field of nutrition, said Carolyn Gunther, director of research in human nutrition at OSU and one of the program’s coordinators.

One problem is the under-representation of minority students studying human nutrition and the other is disproportionate rates of childhood obesity in minority populations compared to other demographics. A disparity that comes from lack of healthy neighborhood environments, poor nutrition and few reliable role models to establish healthy eating habits and exercise, said Merideth Sellars, co-coordinator and professor of biological sciences at Columbus State.

“It is well established that children born into low income neighborhoods have many added barriers to eating healthy, such as not having access to fresh food, not having transportation to get to fresh food or not being able to pay for healthy groceries,” Gunther said. “Research is showing that people of the same background relate better to each other, so by increasing the number of minority trained professionals it directly benefits kids because these professionals have the cultural sensitivity to make a bigger difference.”

Sellars agreed.

“When we look at the alarming statistics of childhood obesity, it becomes imperative that we have professional individuals who can relate to the community,” Sellars said. “Individuals in a minority will relate better to someone who is aware of their concerns.”

Elan Lieber, undergraduate researcher and a third-year in exercise science, said childhood obesity is one of the strongest indicators of chronic obesity in adulthood and type-2 diabetes.

In a research project he conducted at COSI, titled “The Influence of Body Awareness on Physical Activity Behavior,” Lieber discovered that education plays a large role in getting children interested in living healthier lives and decreasing sedentary lifestyles.

“In the past 10 years the highest swells of rates in obesity has been boys ages 6 to 19,” Lieber said. “During my research, I measured intent to exercise before conducting a physical fitness test and after conducting the test.”

The results showed that after the boys were educated on their overall fitness there was a significant increase in students claiming intent to exercise, from about 66 percent to 90 percent.

These results indicate that children may not be aware that they are in poor health and can be taught healthy lifestyle habits, Lieber said. He agreed that the program could be a useful tool in lowering childhood obesity.

Gunther and Sellars said they hope that by pairing minority children with nutritionists who understand the same cultural barriers, the children will feel comfortable seeking help and incorporating professional nutritional advice into their daily lives.

“This children are born into entirely disadvantaged situations with little structure,” Sellars said. “The health of these kids is deteriorating and the rates of obesity are so high, we need to do anything we can to get these numbers down.”

Students receiving the scholarship will receive intensive mentoring from a faculty member in the department who will be partnered with them to work closely together on research and developing solutions, Gunther said.

The scholarship is open to all grade levels, priority is given to sophomore and junior applicants, having one or two years left of undergraduate work to complete. Students from Columbus State who are awarded the scholarship will transfer to OSU to complete their four-year degree in nutrition and continue their individual instruction in the program.

Students of all different minorities are encouraged to apply for the scholarship.

“It’s important to know that this is open to non-traditional minorities as well, such as first generation college students and males,” Sellars said. 

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