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Nutritional Benefits

Nutritional BenefitsFriedman School doctoral candidate Erin Hennessy shares her nutrition expertise with communities hungry for information.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [04.30.08] Skipping meals can help you lose weight. Eating sugar causes diabetes. All fats are bad for you.

Erin Hennessy (A'99, M'03, N'09) has heard it all, yet she still believes that with a little education and understanding she can make a difference in the nutritional health of children.

"On all school levels [parents and educators] are dealing with the same issues of what their children are hearing on TV and learning from marketing, and they are not able to counter that with the correct information because they don't have the resources," Hennessy says.

As an undergraduate biology major, Hennessy says she fell in love with nutrition after taking an introductory class her junior year with Friedman School Assistant Professor Christine Economos, who currently serves as her Ph.D. mentor.

After graduating in 1999, Hennessy began working with Economos on the B.O.N.E.S. (Beat Osteoporosis: Nourish and Exercise Skeletons) project, an intervention and prevention program targeting early elementary school children. She then returned to Tufts to receive her master's in public health and nutrition communication from the School of Medicine and the Friedman School in 2003 and is now just a year shy of receiving her Ph.D. in food policy and applied nutrition from the Friedman School.

In the time between receiving her masters and going for her Ph.D. she worked at the communications department of New Hampshire-based yogurt company Stonyfield Farm. She managed their healthy vending machine project, which involved 700 schools around the country seeking natural and organic snack alternatives for their students.

"It was a really good learning experience for what you have to do to create change at the school level," she says.

Currently, as a staff member for the John Hancock Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and a fellow for the Children in Balance program, funded by the New Balance Foundation, the doctoral candidate has been traveling to schools across the state with the goal of dispelling nutritional myths.

"There is definitely a hunger out there for having experts come into the schools and talk about nutrition," says Hennessy. "We provide parents with different strategies they can use and arm them with information to dispel all the rumors their children hear from their friends and TV."

In the past year, Hennessy has given talks at middle schools in Hingham and Marshfield, arming not only parents and students with information, but also teachers.

"In Marshfield, we had two teacher talks geared toward physical education teachers, health educators, coaches and guidance counselors who have had a hard time convincing the school department the need for incorporating physical activity and nutrition into the school day," she says. "So it is really about taking a different approach and coming from the lens of how academic performance is enhanced if you let students expend some energy and eat well."

The Children in Balance program is just one of many programs to which Hennessy, working with Economos, lends her nutrition expertise. Working with Project Bread, Hennessy says she has been designing a "tool kit" for food service providers based on redesigning school breakfast "above and beyond USDA recommendations."

Through a partnership with Save the Children, a non-profit organization focused on low-income rural areas, Hennessy traveled to impoverished areas in the Mississippi Delta, South Carolina, California's Central Valley and Kentucky, to get a real view of childhood obesity in rural areas. This project was funded through a grant received by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

"We have this image of rural areas in which everyone is outside doing farm work, which is just not the case," she says.

Hennessy utilized a qualitative research method called 'photo voice,' where community members were given cameras to document "the opportunities and barriers when it comes to physical activity."

"We really don't know much about rural areas, and as a researcher you may not be asking the right questions to get at what you need, so the photo voice method says, 'You tell me what I need to pay attention to as a researcher.'"

From what they learned from the community's feedback, Hennessy says they were able to gather information in greater depth, with focus groups for the kids, 24-hour dietary recalls and having children wear activity monitors to record data. Hennessy has included information from this project in her dissertation, which focuses on the role of parents in the development of physical behaviors and eating behaviors in children.

As a former Tufts soccer player and assistant coach, Hennessy also shares her nutrition knowledge with the Tufts community, giving talks to the soccer team and running the pre-orientation program FIT, run by the athletic department.

The experience of working with different communities on multiple levels has been a big part of what continues to thrill Hennessy about the nutrition field.

"It is great to get out there, to hear what other people are saying, know how to communicate and learn what we need to be aware of as far as all the misinformation out there. It kind of keeps us on our toes, which is good."

Profile by Kaitlin Melanson, Web Communications

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