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Childhood obesity addressed in statewide competition

Tuesday, May 6, 2014
Childhood obesity addressed in statewide competition

by Kelli M. Titus

Nusrat Zaman, Blessy Mathew, Maryam Hasan and Phillip Johnson took third place in the 2014 Students Reinventing Michigan Competition with their proposal “Countering the Childhood Obesity Epidemic in Michigan.”
A group of four Oakland University students took third place in a statewide competition proposing how to eliminate childhood obesity.

Each year, Michigan holds the Students Reinventing Michigan Competition, engaging undergraduate students from Michigan universities in finding solutions to problems facing the state. The 2014 competition awarded OU students Nusrat Zaman, Maryam Hasan, Phillip Johnson and Blessy Mathew third place with their proposal “Countering the Childhood Obesity Epidemic in Michigan.”

“We wanted to take a holistic and realistic approach to the topic of childhood obesity,” said Zaman.

The team’s proposal discussed the aspects of education, school lunch programs, physical activity, food access and current policy. They suggested that utilizing and adjusting steps from existing programs could reduce childhood obesity. They proposed:

  • Schools use resources such as MyPlate and Health School Action Tools self-assessment to formulate and implement effective and healthy lunch programs.
  • Children participate in 60 minutes of aerobic, bone strength and muscle strengthening exercise at least three days a week
  • Eliminate "food deserts" — communities with little to no access to nutritious, affordable foods — by giving tax breaks to farmers and store owners to encourage the production and sale of locally grown foods
  • Re-instating the "Double up Food Bucks" program to incentivize purchasing healthier foods with food stamps.

The OU team ranked third out of 45 proposals received from students throughout Michigan. In April, they presented their proposal to the Joint House and Senate Health Policy Committee in Lansing, answering questions and discussing their solution to promote the health and wellbeing of Michigan’s children.  

Jennifer Lucarelli, faculty mentor and assistant professor of health sciences at OU, helped Zaman, Hasan, Johnson and Mathew with their proposal by teaching them processes she uses in her own research.

“This is an excellent example of students taking what they are learning in their classes and applying it to real world problems to create innovative solutions,” Lucarelli said. “The students worked together to integrate knowledge of health and nutrition with politics and business to create a feasible plan based on best practices. 

About the team

Zaman graduated in April with a bachelor of integrative studies in health science, psychology and business. In order to understand the benefits of diminishing childhood obesity, the group of OU undergraduates had to focus on numbers, including the dollar amount, the demographics of Michigan and the results of previous studies and programs. 

“I feel that in order for us to have a strong proposal not only did we need to address the childhood obesity epidemic, but also provide solutions that would benefit all parties involved,” she said.

Hasan graduated this spring with a bachelor's degree in health science and a concentration in nutrition and health. She proposed that "Choose My Plate" be integrated into more school systems, allowing students to visually choose their food options.

“All these changes are in the hopes that Michigan can effectively decrease its children's obesity rates and serve as an example for the nation,” Hasan said.

Johnson is a senior finance major. He enjoyed working with the team, finding that their variety of skills and knowledge balanced one another. Johnson said he and his teammates overcame many obstacles in preparing for this proposal. 

“We only had a month to work on the paper, and it was hard for us to come together since we are all very involved,” he said.

Mathew is a recent graduate with a bachelor's degree in health sciences and a concentration in pre-professional studies. Her part in the team was to focus on food access and how to improve food choices for kids living in urban areas. Her suggestions included developing additional fresh market stores or adding fresh foods into convenience stores.

“'Food deserts’ are places where access to nutritious and healthy food are limited or where these stores don't exist,” Mathew said. “These food deserts should be eliminated and access to foods should be increased.”