WSU, UW partner to combat childhood obesity

PULLMAN, Wash. – A multidisciplinary team of researchers and extension specialists from Washington State University and the University of Washington are partnering to combat childhood obesity through development of a media literacy education program to encourage healthy eating behaviors among families with children aged 9-14. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture funded the project with a $2.5 million grant over the next five years.
The NIFA award will be used to develop a program that teaches critical thinking skills related to media for nutrition learning and behavior change. Directed by Erica Weintraub Austin, professor in the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at WSU and director of the Murrow Center for Media and Health Promotion Research, the project is a collaborative effort between the Murrow College, WSU Extension, the WSU department of human development, and the University of Washington’s College of Education.
Austin said previous studies have shown media and marketing messages represent major sources of information about food for children, but only 2 to 4 percent of the food and fitness television advertising viewed by children promotes fitness and good nutrition habits. “Promotion of less healthy foods in television ads has direct appeal to children. It can act as a barrier to healthy eating and lead children to pressure their parents to buy less healthy food,” she said. 
Project co-director Jill Armstrong Shultz, a nutrition and public health Extension specialist and professor and affiliate faculty in human nutrition and exercise physiology at WSU, explained that, “Some other interventions have recognized links between media exposure and obesity risk for school-age children and have responded by encouraging parents to limit television usage, particularly during meals. This project is different because it aims to help children and parents manage their media-saturated environment, particularly when negative messages in the media counteract messages about healthy eating. The program targets families specifically and addresses the dynamics between parents – children’s first and most significant information source – and the media, another powerful information source for children.”
While the Center for Disease Control and others recommend limiting television viewing as a means to combat childhood obesity, Austin said turning off the TV entirely is not a realistic choice for most families. Rather than working to limit children’s television exposure, the project will attempt to help parents and children develop skills for distinguishing useful and accurate information from misleading or inaccurate information. “The purpose is to help children and parents manage the existing media environment more effectively and together.
“Our research has shown that media literacy education can reduce children’s susceptibility and increase their ability to distinguish useful information from appealing but unrealistic or misleading messages,” Austin said. “As a result, we will adapt, test and disseminate a media literacy-based nutrition education program for youth and parents, involving a family approach to encouraging healthy eating attitudes, knowledge and behaviors.”
The program will be developed with the involvement of parents and youth from Chelan, Douglas, Clark, Grant, Adams, Pierce and Spokane counties. WSU Extension educators will solicit and collect feedback from parents and youth in the counties and work with researchers from the Northwest Center for Excellence in Media Literacy in the College of Education at the University of Washington to develop the program. The UW center is directed by Marilyn Cohen, a research associate professor in the College of Education at UW and a pioneer in media literacy curriculum development. She has been developing media literacy curricula since 1990 and has successfully designed a number of media literacy curricula for use in schools, as well as community organizations serving youth.
Once the program is developed, it will be evaluated with families in these counties with children aged 9 to 14 and who are affiliated with the 4-H Youth Development program and/or Washington State’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-Education program. After the evaluation has been completed and the program has been refined based on the results, the program will be disseminated via WSU Extension offices and the 4-H Youth Development Program, said Mary Katherine Deen, a member of the project’s leadership team and Extension specialist in Cultural Competency and Youth and Family Development with WSU Extension.
A statewide advisory group will recommend dissemination and promotion strategies and participate in promotion. Extension will reach out to nutrition educators, youth development staff and family educators at events such as the Northwest Parenting Conference, which serves Washington, Idaho and Oregon, the annual 4-H Forum, the annual conference of the National Association of Extension 4-H Agents, the national Children, Youth and Families Education and Research Network webinars, and Priester National Extension Health Conference.
In addition to Austin, Shultz and Deen, members of the project team include Shirley Calodich Extension program coordinator, health promotion and diabetes education, WSU Puyallup Research and Extension Center; Louise Parker, Extension family and community development specialist, WSU Puyallup Research and Extension Center, and professor, WSU department of human development; and Thomas Power, professor and chair, WSU department of human development.
Significant support will be provided by WSU extension faculty and personnel. The main team members include Margaret Viebrock and Michelle Lain in Chelan/Douglas County; Sandra Brown in Clark County; Christine Price and Diane Russo in Grant/Adams County; Karen Barale and Brian Brandt in Pierce County; and Dori Babcock, Terry Perry, and Gary Varrella in Spokane County.
The Murrow Center for Media & Health Promotion Research in The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University develops and evaluates health communication campaign strategies that make flexible use of a full range of media platforms to effect social development and quality of life. Projects funded by federal, state and private grants support graduate and undergraduate student involvement in campaign planning and research. The Center is top-ranked nationally by ComVista for research on advertising effects, substance abuse prevention and media literacy. Its research findings have been featured frequently in policy papers released by the American Academy of Pediatrics regarding the connections between the media and children’s health.
Washington State University Extension in the College of Agriculture, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences engages people, organizations and communities to advance knowledge, economic well-being and quality of life by fostering inquiry, learning, and the application of research.


Erica Weintraub Austin, Professor, The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication, WSU; Director of the Murrow Center for Media and Health Promotion, WSU, 509-335-8840,
Jill Armstrong Shultz, Extension Specialist in Nutrition and Public Health; Principal Investigator, WSU Extension SNAP-Ed; Professor and Affiliate Faculty, College of Pharmacy, WSU, 509-335-6181,

WSU Extension
Mary Katherine Deen, Extension Specialist in Cultural Competency & Youth and Family Development, WSU Extension, 509-682-6956,

University of Washington
Marilyn Cohen, Research Associate Professor,  Director of the NW Center for Excellence in Media Literacy, College of Education, University of Washington, 206-543-9414 or 1-888-833-6638