UAMS Researcher Leading $3.1 Million Preschool Intervention to Reduce Obesity and Cancer in Arkansas, Louisiana

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Taren Swindle, Ph.D., (left) attending a Head Start class here in 2019, is leading the NCI-funded study that aims to improve nutrition in early care and education.

Aug 19, 2021 | LITTLE ROCK — The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) is leading a major new effort to reduce cancer by addressing diets in childcare and education.

The project, led by UAMS’ Taren Swindle, Ph.D., will reach approximately 5,000 children and 500 teachers in Arkansas and Louisiana. It is supported by a five-year, $3.1 million grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The NCI upgraded the grant to an R37 MERIT Award, giving Swindle the opportunity to extend the project for a further two years.

Taren Swindle, Ph.D.

About one in five children in the United States is obese by their fifth birthday, and the link between obesity and cancer is now well established.

“The numbers are pretty staggering because it’s educating children for lifelong health risks that range from cancer to diabetes to cardiovascular disease, just to name a few,” said Swindle, an associate professor in the College of Medicine’s Department of Family and Preventive Medicine. . “Overweight has lifelong consequences, so early prevention is critical.”

An Arkansas native and former early childhood educator, Swindle has spent the past decade developing, studying, and refining approaches to improve childhood nutrition in early care. The centerpiece of her work is the intervention, “Together, We Inspire Smart Eating” (WISE), which she developed with Leanne Whiteside-Mansell, Ed.D., a professor in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine and co-investigator of the study and stakeholders in early education. The WISE program aims to serve families at or below the federal poverty line.

WISE includes four key evidence-based practices:

Hands-On Exposure to Fruits and Vegetables Role Modeling by Educators Positive Feeding Practices A Mascot – Windy WISE the Owl – Associated with Fruits and Vegetables

Swindle’s research prior to the NCI grant found that not all early care facilities are equally adept at adopting WISE practices. She and her collaborators will now test strategies to find the right levels of support for each site. The idea is to optimize resources, a tenet of implementation science.

“Basically, we’re looking at the Goldilocks approach, testing how we can adapt implementation strategies to give early childhood and education sites the exact dose of implementation support they need,” Swindle said. “Because the sites have different challenges and resources, we want to be able to align our strategies so that our resources are used most efficiently.”

Ultimately, she hopes the research will lead to wider implementation of the WISE program without the need for funding.

“By the end of this grant, I want us to have a proven model ready for implementation by any state or federal agency,” she said.

Swindle’s co-investigators include Julie Rutledge, Ph.D., an associate professor at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, the Louisiana project leader, and a longtime contributor to the WISE program.

Other co-investigators are:

Geoffrey Curran, Ph.D., director, UAMS Center for Implementation Research, and professor, UAMS College of Pharmacy Jacob Painter, Pharm.D., Ph.D., associate professor, UAMS College of Pharmacy James Selig, Ph.D. , associate professor, UAMS Department of Biostatistics Susan Johnson, Ph.D., professor, Department of Pediatrics, University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, Denver.

The project will also be consulted by Daniel Almirall, Ph.D., an associate professor and expert in adaptive design at the University of Michigan; and Tracey Barnett McElwee, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Social Work at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock. She is an expert at the intersection of health equity and qualitative research.

Key community partners include the UAMS Head Start program, Save the Children Head Start, Lincoln Parish (La.) Head Start, and the Lincoln Health Foundation.

“We’ve had community partners and stakeholders with us every step of the way in developing our plans,” said Swindle. “This grant also has a stakeholder advisory component.”

Kristina Smith, a registered dietitian with UAMS Head Start/Early Head Start, has been a key partner of Swindle in her research and is excited to see it expand.

“I believe that our work with Dr. Swindle and the WISE program can provide significant benefit to children in other early care and education programs such as Head Start,” Smith said. “We have shown that the WISE program can be successful in the UAMS Head Start program, and now I look forward to this next phase of implementation research.”

Swindle’s research is supported by the UAMS Translational Research Institute, which is funded by a Clinical and Translational Science Award from the NIH National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. The UAMS Institute awarded Swindle a two-year KL2 Mentored Research Career Development Award that aided her early research in the WISE program.

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