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Sonya A. Grier, Ph.D., M.B.A.

RWJF Health & Society Scholar 2003-2005

Combating Obesity in Minority and Low-Income Children

The Problem: The childhood obesity rate more than doubled between 1980 and 2004, with 14 percent of 2- to-5-year-olds and 19 percent of 6- to-11-year-olds considered obese by 2004. Among low-income and minority children, the problem was even worse.

Grantee Perspective: Consumer psychologist Sonya A. Grier, Ph.D., M.B.A., has doctoral and M.B.A. degrees from Northwestern University and experience in the public, private, nonprofit and academic sectors. “I wanted to integrate all of this in a domain that had applicability to my life and those around me,” said Grier, an assistant professor of marketing at Stanford University at the time.

Grier chose to focus on the effects of marketing on childhood obesity. As part of the first class of Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholars in 2003, she was able to do that. She completed her two-year interdisciplinary fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania, one of six participating universities.

Results: Grier collaborated with colleagues in epidemiology, medicine and pediatrics from Penn and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to study fast-food marketing and targeted interventions to combat childhood obesity.

Grier and colleagues explored the effects of fast-food marketing seen by ethnically diverse parents on their children’s consumption of fast foods. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) supported this research through its grant to Penn as part of funding to universities participating in Health & Society Scholars to help them develop population health research and teaching capacity.

Grier and colleagues found that favorable social norms (i.e., beliefs that eating fast food is acceptable and common among one’s family and friends) contributed to the influence of fast food marketing on parents and the greater consumption of fast food by their children (Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 2007). They also found differences in exposure to fast-food marketing and perceived community norms among ethnic groups. That is, members of different ethnic groups thought that people in their community ate more or less fast food and felt more or less favorably about fast food, and this belief about these community norms influenced how much fast food their child ate.

In another project, Grier and her program mentor, Shiriki Kumanyika, Ph.D., an epidemiologist, focused on the need for targeted interventions to combat childhood obesity in minority and low-income communities (The Future of Children, 16(1): 2006). They outlined ways to use existing programs to reach these audiences, such as including time for dance and active play in after-school programs, in addition to tutoring and homework time. They also noted the need to improve access to healthy foods and physical activity.

Health & Society Scholars helped me understand how my work applies to policy issues and the design of feasible interventions,” says Grier. “It also connected me with a network of colleagues who are interested in the application of research to help solve real-life health problems.”

After completing her fellowship, Grier applied to four universities and received four job offers. In 2006, she joined the marketing faculty at American University in Washington, attracted by its strong policy focus.

As of September 2007, Grier is collaborating with other Health & Society Scholars, including economist José A. Pagán, Ph.D. With funding from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health, she and Pagán are studying minority access to and use of alternative medicine and how this is related to health disparities. She is also an investigator on a new RWJF grant-funded project at Penn, a five-year, $3.5 million research grant to generate and conduct community-partnered research to reduce obesity in African American children and adolescents. Her mentor, Kumanyika, is the principal investigator.

RWJF Perspective: RWJF created Health & Society Scholars in 2001 to build the field of population health. “There’s been a growing recognition that there are social, behavioral, environmental and economic, as well as biological, determinants of health,” said Senior Program Officer Pamela G. Russo, M.D., leader of RWJF’s Public Health Team.

“The program seeks to integrate paradigms and knowledge from a variety of disciplines to develop an understanding of how these determinants affect the health of populations, and thereby to design interventions with greater power to reduce health disparities,” said Russo.