Health Literacies for City Youth

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Health Literacies for City Youth

Health Literacies for Urban Youth: Countering an Obesogenic School Environment via an Innovative Nutrition Program

Contact Persons:

Principal Investigator (PI): Dr. Sonali Rajan (

Graduate Student Fellow: Moira Pirsch (

Study Description

Background: Research has demonstrated that youth of color in central cities are more likely than their White peers to have lower academic test scores, feel less connected to their school environment, and experience lower rates of high school graduation. Recent research has confirmed that the relationship between poor nutrition and poor academic achievement is not a coincidence; data clearly indicate that quality of health and ability to successfully perform academically are intrinsically related. Additional research confirms that there is a cyclical relationship between academic success and increased academic engagement. Thoughtfully developed school-based initiatives that treat health and learning as integrated issues, can therefore play a crucial role in minimizing both the health and academic achievement disparities that currently exist among youth of color.  Students spend, on average, 8.2 hours per day in their school environment. Many public schools in New York City (NYC), however, particularly those schools that struggle to meet current testing requirements, have removed non-core academic subjects (e.g. health education) from their curricula. Yet, despite this focus on core academic subjects, academic achievement gaps in core areas (including literacy, science, and math) persist.  Literacy and health learning efforts do not need to be treated as separate entities; schools can and should integrate core academic skill development with engaging and relevant health content to simultaneously address gaps in academic performance and in quality of health.  Unfortunately, one of the greatest challenges regarding the implementation of school-based health education efforts is the limited time available during the school day.  The current study aims to foster academic engagement among a sample of urban minority youth, by implementing and evaluatingPowerUp!; an interactive classroom-based nutrition initiative that creatively integrates literacy development with health learning. Dr. Rajan and her colleagues are specifically conducting a study with a sample of early adolescent urban minority youth (n = approximately 150) in two public schools in NYC.  

Program Description: The PowerUp! program consists of ten 40-minute lessons, designed to be implemented in the classroom by the teacher once a week over the course of ten weeks.  The goals of the program are to help youth cultivate critical thinking skills in the context of nutrition and healthy eating, understand the cyclical relationship between individual and collective food choices and the built and natural environments, and empower youth to make long-term behavior changes that involve the consumption of fewer processed and more nutrient-rich foods.  The PowerUp! program has been structured to be easily integrated into any classroom setting and at any time during the school year.  The curriculum aligns with the current National English Language Arts Standards and the National Health Standards.  

Methodology: The PowerUp! program was implemented in three middle-school core curriculum classes in the first school beginning in November 2014.  Data were collected at baseline (two weeks prior to program implementation) and then again immediately following the conclusion of the PowerUp! program via identical measures among both the experimental and control schools.  The PowerUp! program is now being implemented fully in three middle-school classes in the second school.  Data will be collected immediately following the conclusion of the PowerUp! program in both schools in April 2015 and compared with baseline data.  Qualitative data on program implementation have and continue to be collected from both schools as well.  

Post-Intervention: Post-intervention, comparisons on academic engagement, nutrition knowledge, and social norms will be drawn.  A summary of key findings and programmatic recommendations will be disseminated to participating schools by September 2015. 

Current Progress: As of early March 2015, the research team has collected data at pre- and post-test survey data on demographics, nutrition knowledge, social norms, and academic engagement from both the experimental and control schools.  The experimental school successfully implemented the 10 week PowerUp! program in three of their 6th grade core curriculum classes between November 2015 - January 2015.  Implementation data were collected from the teachers on every lesson.  Classroom observations on three randomly selected lessons were conducted by the research team as well. 

The PowerUp! program is currently being implemented among a demographically matched cohort of 6th graders in the control  school.  Implementation data are being collected and classroom observations are taking place as well.  Follow-up post-test survey data on the aforementioned constructs will be collected from both the experimental and control schools in April 2015.  Analyses of these data are currently ongoing.