Luther College, Mayo Clinic and the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative publish first-ever study of six-year obesity trends

A Luther College collaboration on childhood obesity research shows that community- and school-based interventions are effective in reducing the rise of childhood obesity.

Partners in the research include Loren Toussaint, Luther College professor of psychology, along with recent Luther graduates Kristin Housholder and Katelyn Janssen; Ann Mansfield, Luther class of 1979 and Luther's project coordinator for Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative; and Brian Lynch, Luther class of 1996 and Mayo Clinic Pediatrician.

The group extended existing research on childhood obesity by examining the impact of the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative on rates of increase in Body Mass Index in elementary school children over the course of six years.

"This is a unique opportunity to build on diverse partnerships coming together to learn how communities can positively influence childhood obesity in our region," said Mansfield. "The findings validate the importance and effectiveness of making healthy choices more accessible for children and their families."

The focus of NEIFFI is to address childhood obesity through policy, system and environmental changes that increase the access to healthy, local food and physical activity opportunities for children and their families in Allamakee, Clayton, Chickasaw, Fayette, Howard and Winneshiek Counties.

Analysis of the data was compiled over six years, in 10 elementary school districts on more than 4,000 students. The analysis led the team to conclude that students who experienced the NEIFFI for several years showed slower rates of growth in BMI across the kindergarten through fifth-grade years. Because of childhood obesity, for the first time in modern history, children may live a shorter life than their parents. This study offers a now-proven way to help reverse this trend. The data shows that the four strategic points of intervention that NEIFFI employs are working by providing improved access to healthier foods and physical activities.

According to Toussaint, the first and foremost point of intervention is the schools. Through four strategies, the initiative establishes school district policies and practices that support healthy living within the community, focused on the elementary school children and their families.

·      Supporting school wellness activities, farm to school programming and developing opportunities for physical activity throughout the school day

·      Ensuring that caregivers and parents provide preschool children with health-promoting food and active play

·      Developing networks to make local, health-promoting food available and affordable in all communities

·      Shaping a built environment that supports opportunities for physical activity and play.

 Building on these four strategies, the research surrounding NEIFFI suggests that two to six years of exposure to initiative work resulted in a significantly lower BMI growth rate in elementary school children.

 The collaboration produced the paper "Slowing BMI Growth Trajectories in Elementary School-Aged Children: The Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative," which was published in Family and Community Health: The Journal of Health Promotion and Maintenance.

​ Toussaint said, "The collaboration is continuing to work to assess BMI and understand contributors to childhood obesity. We are actively collecting data, planning for future programming, and using the results of analyses to inform our next steps. We are writing grants and seeking out potential funders to support this work. Our continuing aim is to bring together a collaboration with multiple levels of expertise and work together as students, faculty, and community to address childhood obesity."

Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative

The Northeast Iowa Food & Fitness Initiative brings people in Allamakee, Chickasaw, Clayton, Fayette, Howard and Winneshiek counties together to make the region a place where every day, all people have access to healthy, locally grown foods and abundant opportunities for physical activity in the places where they live, learn, work and play.  

This initiative is one of nine projects nationwide supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation Food & Community Program working to transform food and fitness systems through policy and system change projects.

Loren Toussaint
Ann Mansfield
Katelyn Janssen
Kristin Housholder
Brian Lynch