Community-based research in Newton, Iowa, tries to promote nutritional health

A community health partnership with Newton, Iowa, has given UI and Grinnell public-health students the opportunity to do hands-on, participatory research about nutrition in the Newton community.


Katina Zentz

Helaina Thompson poses for a portrait in the Field House on Wednesday, April 24, 2019. Thompson is a student who develops programs to promote health and prevent obesity.

Annie Fitzpatrick, News Reporter

University of Iowa students and faculty of the College of Public Health are expanding their knowledge of nutrition to Newton, Iowa, through a community health partnership that promotes healthy lifestyles.

The program, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, has the support of former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack. Featuring both students from the UI and Grinnell College, the objective of the course is speak with the Newton community and develop health objectives that will benefit the city as a whole, said UI epidemiology Professor Linda Snetselaar.

She is one of the leaders of the program and also teaches a course on nutritional policy, which corresponds to the work in Newton.

Snetselaar, also the UI associate provost for outreach and engagement, said the Provost’s Office is responsible for the program, working directly with the Newton community and has allowed individuals to collaborate with the community on ideas to improve the nutritional health of Newton, specifically in terms of working with schools in the area.

“Although communities have similarities, they are also very individual … that concept of knowing their uniqueness is in communities it is vital,” she said. “We always go into a community in a very humble fashion, looking at what they know, because they know so much and have already tried so many things.”

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When planning the program, Snetselaar said, the initial focus was on looking for a community that faced recent struggle — Newton fit that profile. In 2006, Maytag left Newton and took many community members’ employment with it, she said.

Snetselaar said the company’s decision to leave Newton left an “open void” among people who lost their jobs, but it’s made the program useful in helping Newton rectify the situation with health promotion.

Hy-Vee and Skiff Medical Center dietitian Jennifer Thompson is also a part of the nutritional aspects with the program in Newton. In an email to The Daily Iowan, she said her primary roles in the program are to work with Snetselaar’s class on developing projects for the program.

Jasper County’s obesity rate reached 33.9 percent in 2015, so Thompson said the program is important for improving the health of Newton residents to reduce the obesity rate.

“This program will expose children attending the summer-school food program to more fruits and vegetables,” she said. “The program will also provide a small number of families an opportunity to use technology along with delivery meals to improve health.”

UI master’s student Helaina Thompson is a part of Snetselaar’s global nutrition policy course and was invited by Snetselaar to join the Newton Community Health Partnership. She, along with students from Grinnell, leads nutritional aspect of the program and works with Newton schools and stakeholders to improve health.

Thompson said it is important for researchers to directly engage with the communities they are working with. Iowa is the fourth most obese state in the United States, and she said that this program is important for promoting childhood nutrition to address this problem.

The program has offered Helaina Thompson the opportunity to pilot a farm-to-school program at the new school in Newton by working directly with superintendents and directors in the community, and she said she really enjoys the community-based style of research.

“Community members are very much involved in the research, they are, in a sense, researchers, alongside you,” she said.

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