UTHealth receives $3.7 million to evaluate City of Austin’s childhood obesity prevention efforts

Savana Dunning

The UT Health Science Center at Houston received two grants this month totalling $3.7 million to aid the City of Austin’s efforts to combat childhood obesity.

The larger of the grants, with a price tag of $2.5 million, will go toward an evaluation of the City’s Safe Routes to School program, which encourages students to walk or bike ride to school rather than using a car or bus. The smaller grant of $1.2 million, awarded by the Texas Department of State Health Services, will go toward the School Physical Activity and Nutrition survey, an effort by the state through UTHealth to monitor obesity in school-age children across Texas.

Deanna Hoelscher, regional dean of UTHealth’s School of Public Health in Austin, applied for the grant to fund an evaluation of the effectiveness of Safe Routes to School’s infrastructure spending, called Safe Travel Environment Evaluation in Texas Schools.

“One of our (goals) is to make the world healthier, and part of that is making the environment in which we live conducive to healthy behaviors,” Hoelscher said. “When you put these infrastructure changes in place, it makes it more likely that kids will be more physically active at least a couple times a day, and we want to make the healthy choice the easy choice.”

In 2016, Austin voters approved $720 million in bonds to be set aside for transportation and mobility improvements across the city. Of those bonds, $27.5 million were designated for Safe Routes to School to spend on improving infrastructure to make walking to school safer for students.

Amir Emamian, program coordinator for Safe Routes to School, said at first, the program hired crossing guards and provided educational material to classrooms, but the bond money has allowed the program to expand.

“What this has given us is the ability to say, ‘Hey we have the funds to pay for this, can you go ahead and do it now?’” Emamian said. “Whereas before it was like, ‘Can you find the funds to do this?’ These children are going to be our future, and we want them to be as healthy as possible. We want them to have that mindset that places are bikeable or walkable.”

Layla Esposito, child development and behavior program director at the National Institutes of Health, said her department funded Hoelscher’s evaluation into the program because of its applicability to other Safe Routes to School programs in the U.S.

“There hasn’t been a really large-scale evaluation of Safe Routes to School programming to know whether or not it has a big impact on physical activity levels in kids,” Esposito said. “We know that, in response to the obesity epidemic, there are lots of policies and programs that are being put into place by local, state or federal governments, and we don’t know whether or not they work because a lot of times they’re funded without an evaluation component.”

Hoelscher said the smaller grant for School Physical Activity and Nutrition would fund the measures necessary to analyze the health of school-age children across Texas.

“There are data on high school students through the Youth Risk Behavior Survey at the Texas level, but there are no data for middle school or elementary school kids that are similar,” Hoelscher said. “It’s good for the state to have this data because the state oversees school policies, so you can look at it and see if (those policies are) making a difference or not.”


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