Childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents over the past 30 years, leading to increased risks for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and breathing problems.
Researchers from the University of Maine have developed the 4-H iCook project to tackle this issue in the home. The program encourages families to cook, eat, and exercise together while improving culinary skills and increasing physical activity.
With the help of a $1.5 million Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the University of Maine and land-grant universities in Nebraska, South Dakota, Tennessee, and West Virginia are measuring the program’s effect on participants’ body mass indexes over a period of two years.
“The long-range goals are for obesity prevention,” said Adrienne White, project lead and human nutrition professor at the University of Maine. “Maintaining weight within the normal percentile curves is what would be desired, as well as increasing culinary skills and eating together as a family.”
The 2010 White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity emphasized that solutions for the next generation will result from educating children on nutrition and healthful living.
Researchers have identified a lack of parental education in nutrition, sedentary lifestyles, availability of high-caloric foods, and scarcity of healthful foods as contributing factors to the obesity crisis. A decrease in regular family meals has also been associated with low socioeconomic status and overweight youth.
The 4-H approach of learning by doing is at the heart of iCook. 4-H advances youth development through the science of engagement, learning, and change. Through iCook, 9- and 10-year-old youth learn the importance of a healthy lifestyle by preparing meals in their homes and increasing physical activity with their families.
To increase enthusiasm, the program website engages participants with videos, blogs, and other media to promote success and create an online community among the five states participating. Researchers will use this web activity, surveys, and physical measurements to track results.
The iCook 4-H Dissemination Study will begin in September 2015 and include an assessment cooking and kitchen skills, use of technology, goal setting, and physical activity in youth and culinary confidence in adults. Outcomes of the research will be used to develop curriculum for the University of Maine’s youth extension program.
“We hope people begin to cook more and eat together more and be more aware of their food,” White said. “We want people to get back to loving food, understanding food, and being able to work with food.”
Through federal funding and leadership for research, education, and extension programs, NIFA focuses on investing in science and solving critical issues impacting people's daily lives and the nation's future. For more information, visit www.nifa.usda.gov.