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Researchers study effectiveness of healthier food options

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ECU associate professor Dr. Stephanie Pitts talks with convience store owner David Rizik about the healthy food choices available in his store on Old Pactolus Highway in Pitt County.


By ECU News Services

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Researchers from East Carolina University have been awarded grant funding to study the effectiveness of a program to improve access to healthy food options in North Carolina.

The two-year, $250,000 grant through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Policies for Action research program will provide funding for a team of researchers — led by principal investigator Stephanie Pitts, a professor in ECU’s Department of Public Health — to evaluate the impact of the state’s Healthy Food Small Retailer Program.

The program, which was funded through the legislature in 2016 and administered by the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, aims to help small retailers in the state’s food deserts overcome common barriers they face in stocking nutrient-dense foods by providing reimbursement for refrigeration, freezer and shelving equipment.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food deserts as areas where there is:

■ Limited access to sources of healthy food, such as supermarkets or grocery stores.

■ Insufficient individual-level resources, such as family income or vehicle availability.

■ Limited neighborhood-level resources, such as the average income and public transportation.

“Low population contributes to it,” Pitts said. “In rural areas, a lot of times it’s more difficult to get to public transportation or people might not have access to their vehicle and then it’s further to a grocery store.”

Initial research, funded by a Brody Brothers Foundation grant , began with four participating stores and four control stores throughout eastern North Carolina. The data collected from that research was used for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant proposal, Pitts said.

Store customers who agreed to be surveyed received gift cards as compensation for their time spent in the study.

“I think people have been interested in it and excited to take part in it. So we’ve had a good response so far,” Pitts said.

For the next two years, Pitts and the team of researchers — which includes fellow ECU researchers Ronny Bell and Ann Rafferty, Department of Public Health, and Qiang Wu, Department of Biostatistics, as well as researchers from North Carolina State University, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, UNC-Greensboro, University of Minnesota and a consultant from Georgetown University – will work to answer the following questions:

■ Do the stores indeed end up stocking healthier foods?

■ Do customers purchase healthier food and beverage options if they have access to them?

■ What is the dietary impact on customers over time?

■ Is there any financial incentive or return on investment for the store owners to stock healthier foods?

“It’s important to figure out the public health impact of this funding in food deserts in North Carolina,” Pitts said. “Because ultimately, we want to help improve the health of North Carolinians, and contribute to the science-base to answer the question: ‘Do small changes in healthy foods offered in corner stores help contribute to a cultural shift and overall broader impact on health in underserved areas?’”

Paynter named to APLU Commission executive council

An ECU assistant vice chancellor has been appointed to a leadership role in a prestigious new Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities panel.

Sharon Paynter, who oversees ECU’s Office of Community Engagement and Research, has been named a member the APLU’s Commission on Economic and Community Engagement executive committee.

The commission, led by Pennsylvania State University President Eric J. Barron, was created to lead the APLU’s mission of expanding economic development and community engagement. The CECE focuses on broadening engagement through three areas including talent and workforce development; innovation, entrepreneurship and tech-based economic development; and place development through public service, outreach, extension and engagement.

During her three-year term, Paynter will assist the APLU in promoting professional development, leadership and peer exchange programs, as well as contributing to federal policy issues and developing best practices for community engagement projects.

“ECU has long been recognized for its strengths in economic and community engagement,” Paynter said. “This opportunity allows us to continue to contribute to the policies, research, peer exchange and professional development initiatives that shape the ways that universities impact communities around them.”

Associate professor selected for National Humanities Center summer residency

Erin Frost, associate professor of English at ECU, was selected for a summer residency program at the National Humanities Center located in Research Triangle Park. According to the NHC website, the center is one of the most prestigious independent research institutes in the world and is the only one dedicated exclusively to the humanities.

The residency is a four-week program that runs June 3-28 and gives participants an opportunity to work on a current research project or jumpstart a new one. Scholars receive lodging, food and assistance from the center’s team of librarians.

Frost will continue researching and writing her newest book on apparent feminism, an original methodology she developed during her dissertation work.

The book, “Feminist Technical Communication,” uses feminist theory to reorient how people view efficiency so it is not just about using fewer resources, but also paying attention to the human aspects of the situation; a balance, rather than being more resource-focused.

Frost said the residency will help by giving her the time necessary to develop her manuscript. She also said the library’s resources will be beneficial for the chapters in her book that focus on the history of feminist theory and explaining what feminism means.

“People don’t always have a great understanding of what it means and what it has meant historically,” Frost said. “So I think it will really help me to be able to have that support, to explain that feminism means different things and how we can leverage some of those particular meanings.”

ECU’s Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences and the provost’s office are collaborating to cover the cost of Frost’s participation in the residency program.

“Erin Frost is a rising star in her field, and I am pleased that as a university we are able to support promising work in the humanities such as hers,” said Dr. William M. Downs, dean of Harriot College.