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September 6, 2019

Punam Ohri-VachaspatiThe Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems focuses on innovative ideas and solutions to the many challenges of current food systems. In this series, we’re sitting down with the Swette Center affiliated faculty to catch up on food systems, innovation and what makes a good meal. See the rest of the series on our Food Systems Profiles page.

Read on for an interview with Punam Ohri-Vachaspati, professor professor of Nutrition at the School of Nutrition and Health Promotion.

Question: How did you get interested in food systems issues?

Answer: I’ve been working in food systems and community nutrition for a while. I started off in India, doing training for India’s largest child development program. Then I worked for the planning commission of the government of India. When I came to the US to do my Ph.D. I was focused on nutrition policy and nutrition education.

But I really turned my focus to policy in the early 2000s because it was clear that our nutrition education programs worked well, in the sense that people were engaged with the material, but there was no real behavior change. There was also a shift in the field, towards policy change and the food environment at that time. I’ve stayed with that interest, looking at how policies in communities shape health outcomes, particularly in schools.

Q: Share a glimpse of your current research and how it applies to food systems transformation.

A: My main focus is childhood obesity. One current project focuses on how changes in the food environment may impact children’s health and behaviors. We’re following a cohort of about 1,000 kids over two to five years, and tracking changes in their food and physical activity environment. These could be changes in a community such as stores opening or closing, or physical opportunities that come and go, or even changes that are happening within a store, like offering healthier products.

We also track what’s happening in schools that our study children attend. With documentation of all those changes, we are asking what affects children’s health outcomes and behavior. This study is unique because instead of one change, say the opening of a new grocery store, we are looking at many changes that children may be exposed to on a larger scale and examine what might impact their behaviors and health.

Another project is focused on communities that have seen declines in childhood obesity, which is unusual because we’re mostly seeing increases in childhood obesity. So we’re looking at 110 schools in low-income high-minority communities over a seven-to-eight year period, and tracking height and weight data. We have parallel information about the food and physical activity environment within and around schools. This allows us to identify what was happening in schools where there was a decline in obesity versus where there was an increase in obesity. Recall is subjective, so it’s important that we have real-time data year-by-year to be able to see these environments in a more informed way. We want to help policymakers make decisions that lead to better health outcomes for children and we hope our research will be able to do that.

Q: What’s an innovation in the food systems world that you’re excited about?

A: I’m excited about the potential to amplify the positive effects of school food programs by engaging with retail businesses. There is a USDA program called the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program which is offered to elementary schools. In Arizona there are over 100 elementary schools that participate in the program, and all of them have free and reduced price meals eligibility rates of 90% or higher. The goal is to introduce students to fruits and vegetables and encourage behavior change over life. So the program targets the population it is intended for perfectly.

We’ve found that schools that participate in the program tend to offer healthier lunches as well. Students go home and nudge their parents to buy more fruits and vegetables, by a significant amount. And what is surprising is that the effect is more for vegetables than for fruit! So now we want to see if we can partner with grocery stores to cross promote fruits and vegetables. Grocery stores are interested because they really want to do something good for their community. Some see it as building a customer base, or brand loyalty, early on. And grocery stores are also thinking it might bring in more sales because if schools serve plums in the cafeteria for example, and then the store put plums on sale, it can be a win-win for everyone. If we can create a systematic partnership, that is meaningful, the chances of success are much higher.

Q: What’s your favorite food?

A: I love fruits, and especially citrus right now. Also cucumber, just by itself, or with just a bit of salt.