UA professor spearheads $16 million grant against obesity

Julian Barcelo plants an herb garden in March 2011 with students in his kindergarten class at the Davis Bilingual Magnet Elementary School.
Merrill Eisenberg

Merrill Eisenberg is a dynamo — a medical anthropologist and assistant professor at the University of Arizona’s Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health whose $16 million grant strikes at obesity from multiple fronts. “The bottom line is to make the healthy choice the easy choice,” says Eisenberg, who has worked to establish programs with partner organizations in schools, workplaces and neighborhoods.

People from a variety of organizations, including nine sub-recipients, are working together to implement the grant, she says. To make an impact in schools, “we’re looking at health policies, reducing or cutting out vending machines in high schools. That’s happening as we speak.”

“Pima County Communities Putting Prevention to Work” was funded in March 2010 as part of a national initiative by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and is administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The grant is part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, and has provided approximately 125 new jobs in Pima County.

“CDC data indicates that the prevalence of obesity among adults has increased 50 percent over the last three decades, while childhood obesity rates have tripled,” states the first year grant report, which continues, “Annual spending on obesity and related health care costs is estimated at $147 billion per year, or nearly $500 per every man, woman and child in the United States, and reports indicate that 75 percent of all health care costs are due to chronic conditions including obesity-related diseases like diabetes, heart disease and arthritis.”

The CPPW grant has been developed and is administered by the Pima County Health Department in partnership with Activate Tucson, a coalition comprised of a wide range of community organizations working together to get Tucson citizens moving and affect public policy.

The two-year grant, which will end in 2012, is for “policy, systems, and environmental changes,” says Eisenberg, and focuses on implementation rather than chastising people for making unhealthy decisions. The control of tobacco is an example: Eisenberg was involved with the core group responsible for stopping smoking in Tucson restaurants. The operative premise is to change the environment and the people will follow.

Workplaces have more wellness training for their employees because of the grant, says Caroline Gardiner, finance manager at the Trico Electric Cooperative. The Tucson Jewish Community Center’s wellness and swimming programs have also benefited from the grant.

Eisenberg is passionate about the opportunities for healthier changes in Tucson. And she has good reason to be – of the 44 recipients of the CDC grant, Pima County received the highest per capita funding.

Raised in the Las Vegas area, Eisenberg, 62, grew up in a politically active Jewish family. “I remember my mother watching the 1956 Democratic convention, crying when Adlai Stevenson was nominated” because she was so happy, says Eisenberg. “It’s all about tikkun olam, or changing the world.”

“My stepmother, Dorothy Eisenberg, was responsible for getting the schools desegregated in Las Vegas,” she says, and had an elementary school named after her. The elder Eisenberg was president of the local Jewish federation and active in the League of Women Voters.

Neighborhoods are an essential place to start encouraging healthy choices, says Eisenberg. “We’re trying to get them involved in community gardens, creating new farmers’ markets, and even having small grocery stores so that people don’t have to drive.” Eisenberg has been steeped in zoning regulations, some of which should be changed, she says, such as where food can be sold.

A “Smart Choices for Healthy Dining” guide is being developed, and will offer a voluntary program to help consumers to choose where they dine. A phone app will also be available.

“We’re working with the annual ‘Tucson Meet Yourself’ festival [sponsoring] a contest for food vendors to offer healthy options,” says Eisenberg. “Traditions of Health & Wellness” is the theme for this year’s festival, which will take place Oct. 14 to 16. Food vendors will be invited to create one or two menu items that promote healthy eating, and cash prizes will be awarded from the grant’s “Smart Choices for Healthy Dining” rewards program.

In addition to food choices, more sustainable lifestyles will require other changes. “Development here is like in many American cities that must accommodate automobiles,” says Eisenberg. “Let’s get more people out of their cars, make more walking and bike paths. Have people design their own neighborhoods.”

The Drachman Institute, one of the grant’s sub-recipients, provides outreach for the UA School of Architecture, and helps with seemingly simple but important parts of neighborhood design, such as locating sites for shadier bus stops.

Eisenberg’s UA students have also been involved in CPPW projects, but, she told the AJP, “this is my last semester teaching so I can work full time on the grant. It’s important to create organizations that will exist after the grant ends in 2012, such as the Living Streets Alliance. We’ve been supporting them a lot. We gave them start-up money” because they lobby for more bike and pedestrian lanes, and better street transportation.

“I hope this grant will help set up other organizations in Tucson to further changes in public policy,” she says, adding that it’s all about “healthy eating and active living, or ‘heal,’ which brings us back to tikkun olam.”

For more information, visit www.HealthyPima.org.