U professors seek to end obesity

Many professors are looking at how economic situations contribute to obesity.

Riham Feshir

Some University professors are looking at obesity from a different perspective.

Instead of focusing on the biological aspects of obesity, the professors are looking at obesity from an economic standpoint and are working on projects that tackle economic conditions that lead to obesity.

One of those professors, food science and nutrition professor Cheryl Smith, is studying eating habits in homeless people and is trying to understand how some people can be obese with limited access to food. She is currently collecting data from various shelters in Minneapolis.

Smith said she got her idea while studying the eating habits of low-income Twin Cities residents five years ago.

“Low-income people were heavier than the average population,” Smith said. “They are concerned about where the food is coming from. Then when they have it, they tend to overeat.”

Smith said food choices and access to food were the main issues she found while working on the project and collecting data.

Whether people live in homeless shelters or in low-income housing, they still have limited choices, she said.

In addition to choice, access to healthy food can cause obesity in the homeless.

“The shelters are located in the inner city (where) there aren’t very big grocery stores,” Smith said.

Food in the inner city is also expensive, she said, and traveling longer distances to have access to healthy fruits and vegetables can be inconvenient for homeless people.

Smith said she hopes policy makers will use the results of her study to make decisions about where to place grocery stores and what kinds of food to serve in homeless shelters.

Nationwide studies by the Minnesota Department of Health show that 25 percent to 30 percent of children ages 6 to 11 are obese; and 18 percent to 25 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds are obese.

To combat increased obesity, the department of applied economics hopes to help young children develop healthy eating habits.

As part of that effort, professors Benjamin Senauer and Ford Runge from the applied economics department have established a program in the Hopkins School District that eliminates unhealthy foods.

The project focuses on getting students to eat whole grains, fruits and vegetables, said Allen Levine, head of the food science and nutrition department and director of the Minnesota Obesity Center.

The applied economics department is looking at how school districts get government funding for lunch programs as well as why some schools can offer free lunches to students while others cannot.

Not getting free lunch can negatively affect a student’s eating options, said Corbett Grainger, a graduate student in the applied economics department and part of the Hopkins project.