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Program to target underserved populations with healthy eating, stress management tips


One Michigan State University College of Nursing researcher is hoping a new program will instill healthy eating habits in underserved, low-income young children and families across Michigan.

“Happy Family, Healthy Kids” will launch in 2020 at Lansing-based Capital Area Community Services, Inc. Head Start and Early Childhood Programs, as well as at the Northwest Michigan Community Action Agency, specifically Cadillac, Charlevoix, East Jordan and Kalkaska. The program will target families who engage in “emotional eating” – or ill-advised food choices for their families – due to stress in their lives, often caused by a lack of income. Parents will be coached on making happy and healthy eating behavioral changes at home that will support their young children to establish lifelong healthy eating habits.

“Our thought is that by helping them to effectively manage their stress, they can better focus on healthy eating practices at home,” said Assistant Professor Dr. Jiying Ling, Ph.D., RN. “We want to establish lifelong healthy eating habits, but that can be difficult when you don’t know where your next meal will come from due to financial insecurity.”

The two-year project, funded with a $425,000 grant from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund, will kick off by enrolling voluntarily 160 young children and their parents in the program, which will collect data, including biometrics (i.e., weight, height), hair samples and online surveys. Hundreds of additional Head Start children will also participate in the child portion of the program, but data will not be collected from those participants.

The 14-week healthy eating program, which will roll out in Fall 2020, Involves four components:

1. A Facebook group for parents focused on stress management and healthy eating habits

2. Three parent face-to-face meetings at Head Start centers to connect parents with one another, as well as to participate in healthy cooking classes and seminars.

3. An “Eat my ABCs” program for children, which will provide age-appropriate, healthy eating education

4. Letters from children to their parents to connect school learning with parental eating practices at home

Ultimately, Ling hopes to also measure cortisol in hair samples, to see if there is a connection between the hormone levels, stress participation in the program, and program outcomes. If successful, the program could be expanded to Head Start centers across the state.

“This program has the potential to have life-changing consequences for participants,” Ling said. “We just need to provide access to the right tools at the right place and, hopefully, participants will take our message to heart.”

Ling will be joined by MSU College of Nursing colleague Dr. Lorraine Robbins, Ph.D., RN, FNP-BC, FAAN; and Dr. Jean Kerver, Ph.D., MSc, RD, in the MSU College of Human Medicine’s Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Traverse City campus.