Dietetics and Nutrition Dishes Up Community Partnerships

From a holiday donation challenge to research involving food pantry needs, the Dietetics and Nutrition department has been busy in the community. Assistant Professor Leslie Redmond, current president of the Alaska Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, recently helped to organize and raise $600 for members to donate to the Food Bank of Alaska during the holiday season. Redmond has also been working with fellow Assistant Professor Amanda Walch to address an issue Walch found while working with the Saint Francis House (SFH) Food Pantry, the largest client choice food pantry in the state of Alaska, which provides about 100 families with an emergency supply of food each day. 

In 2017, Walch worked with Professor Tracey Burke from the UAA School of Social Work to create a client survey for SFH and discovered that many clients were utilizing the pantry and other emergency food assistance programs on a chronic basis. This was concerning since food assistance programs are only meant to temporarily alleviate food insecurity and hunger, and are not designed for chronic use. Therefore, it became evident that the foods SFH offered must have essential nutrients required to support and maintain health for individuals and families. 

Another survey was conducted, revealing that the majority of foods available to SFH clients were healthy and nutritious; however, Walch, Burke and their research collaborators found that the healthiest options were not always selected by clients. (Their findings were published in Ecology of Hunger and Nutrition and the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition.) This led to the development of a “nudge” program by Dietetics and Nutrition graduate student Kiana Holland in the spring of 2020. A nudge is an environmental cue that steers clients to make healthy decisions without removing client choice. For example, Holland developed shelf labels to nudge clients towards selecting whole wheat bread instead of white bread, but both options would remain available to clients. 

The problem remained, however, that even a nudge may not be enough to convince clients that the healthier food items were just as tasty and enjoyable as the less healthy alternatives. To address this issue, Walch teamed up with Redmond and together they applied for and were awarded funding from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Foundation and the McCormick Science Institute to investigate the use of herbs and spices to improve dietary intake in food pantry clients. 

For this new, ongoing project, Walch and Redmond will be working with a team of student research assistants made possible through the UAA Center for Community Engagement and Learning Faculty Mini-grant and Community Engaged Student Assistant programs. Their goal is to develop and implement a nutrition program that will educate food pantry clients on how to use herbs and spices to add flavor to healthy foods instead of adding flavor with sugar, fat, or salt, which can take away from the healthy attributes of many meals. They will be working closely with SFH to develop an educational program that is tailored to their specific client population and hope to feature SFH clients themselves in the materials.

In addition to their work to fight hunger and promote healthy dietary intake in the greater Anchorage community, Walch and Redmond are also helping to lead efforts to address food insecurity on UAA’s campus. Working with the Hunger and Homelessness Support Network and building off of previous on-campus housing and food insecurity data collected by Assistant Professor of Health Sciences Travis Hedwig of Health Sciences and Professor of Social Work Kathi Trawver, discussions are underway to gain institutional support for an on-campus food pantry through the Office of the Provost.