KEARNEY — Researchers at the University of Nebraska will use $2.5 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to launch a collaboration aimed at reducing childhood obesity in rural communities.

The grant funding, awarded to Kate Heelan at the University of Nebraska at Kearney and Jennie Hill at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, is part of a five-year CDC initiative aimed at reducing obesity rates among children from lower-income families.

The grant will be split - $1.3 million to UNMC and $1.2 million to UNK.

“There are many health risks associated with obesity, and with children we know the risks are even greater in rural communities,” said Heelan, a professor of exercise science and director of the Physical Activity and Wellness Lab at UNK. “This is an area people across the nation are concerned about.”

According to the CDC, obesity affects nearly 1 in 5 children in the U.S., with higher rates in lower-income families and rural areas that don’t have access to the same resources as urban cities. Effective research-tested, family-based programs have been available for more than two decades. However, getting these programs started and sustained in communities has been difficult, particularly for rural areas.

“The funding from the CDC is going to help us test ways to involve communities in setting up and sustaining effective childhood obesity treatment programs so rural areas and small cities across Nebraska and other Great Plains states can benefit,” said Hill, an associate professor of epidemiology in the College of Public Health at UNMC.

Researchers from UNK and UNMC, working as a collaborative team, will begin to address these issues by packaging an already successful healthy living program so it can be replicated in smaller communities across the country.

Building Healthy Families, a 12-week program Heelan and her team at UNK launched in 2009, works with participants to identify better food choices, modify unhealthy behaviors and increase physical activity. The free program, designed for families with children ages 6-12, is run by faculty from UNK’s Department of Kinesiology and Sport Sciences.

“We’ve demonstrated that if we can intervene at a young age and teach kids and families to make better choices, there can be long-term sustainability and decreased health risks,” Heelan said.

The goal now is to create a turnkey version of this program that’s easy to implement in other communities. Tom Jacobs and a team of specialists from Trifoia, which develops websites and mobile applications for digital training, will work closely with the researchers to take the program materials and create a digital package that includes online resources and training modules.

“Having a turnkey program is a critical first step in our work, but we are also really interested in how to support communities in starting the program and, most importantly, planning for long-term sustainability of the program in their communities,” said Hill.

The universities will partner with four to eight rural Nebraska communities selected through an application process as pilot test locations. Researchers will work with those communities to implement the program and secure the necessary resources to ensure its viability. Finally, an advisory board will work to develop ways to generate sustainable funding and reimbursements for the program.

“We are really excited about this project and we couldn’t have built such a strong team and obtained pilot data without the support of the University of Nebraska’s cross-campus initiatives,” said Heelan.

The UNK and UNMC collaborators have received funds from the Rural Futures Institute and Nebraska Research Initiative, which are intended to facilitate research that extends beyond the borders of any single campus. Other members of the research team include professor Todd Bartee and associate professor Bryce Abbey, both in the UNK Department of Kinesiology and Sport Sciences, and UNMC College of Public Health faculty Paul Estabrooks, a professor and chair of the department of health promotion, assistant professor of biostatistics Chris Wichman and Tzeyu Michaud, an assistant professor in the Center for Reducing Health Disparities.

At the conclusion of the five-year project, the program will be ready for adoption by health care, community or public health organizations that serve lower-income or rural populations.

“The ultimate goal is to share our program with smaller communities,” Heelan said.

UNK’s portion of the grant funding is the largest current research award for the university and one of the largest in school history. It’s the first CDC research grant awarded to UNK.

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