VERONA When Samantha Willcutt was an undergrad student at Mississippi State University, she waited tables at an upscale restaurant called The Veranda, eventually working her way up to manager.
She saw how really good food made people happy, but she wanted a more intimate setting, so after graduation, she went to work for Zoes Kitchen, which specialized in made-from-scratch, fresh, healthy Mediterranean-type fare.
I traveled around the country, opening new restaurants and managing them for a while, said Willcutt, 37. I was reading about nutrition all the time and what food was doing to my body and other peoples bodies. I wanted to push myself to learn more.
So, after 10 years in the restaurant business, Willcutt headed back to MSU and earned a masters degree in nutrition in 2016.
While I was getting my masters, I did a graduate assistantship in the Office of Nutrition Education at MSU Extension, she said. It was a nice combination of learning about nutrition and helping people. Thats when I said, Yep, this is for me.
In October 2016, Willcutt became one of three regional dietitians Extension hired to help in the fight against obesity and chronic disease in Mississippi.
The state has the second highest adult obesity rate in the nation, according to "The State of Obesity: Better Policies for a Healthier America" released in August 2017. Mississippi's adult obesity rate is currently 37.3 percent, up from 23.7 percent in 2000 and from 15 percent in 1990.
Willcutt oversees the northeast region of the state. Two others came on board this summer: Kaitlin DeWitt oversees the southeast region and Juaqula Madkin manages the southwest region. The northwest position hasnt been filled yet.
Through the Office of Nutrition Education, they oversee Extensions Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education, or SNAP-Ed. They work with SNAP-Ed nutrition educators in county offices to help coordinate efforts to teach low-resource families ways to improve their diets, increase physical activity and manage their food resources.
When Sylvia Byrd was hired as the director in 2015, she brought a new attitude to the SNAP-Ed program, said Willcutt, a Starkville native. She didnt just want us focused on education. She wanted to expand the efforts and implemented PSE policy, systems and environment all moving parts that work together. Policy influences the system, which changes the environment.
For example, Willcutt said, if a school has a rule that says students cant bring sugary treats to school for parties, thats a policy. So the school has to have a plan to implement the policy, which affects the system. In turn, the students are offered healthier snacks at parties, which makes a healthier environment.
Fighting obesity is probably the hardest thing this state is going to have to do, Willcutt said. The problem isnt going to be solved tomorrow, or next year or even five years from now. In my opinion, it may be 20 years away. In the South, food is how you show love, and thats usually high-fat, high-calorie comfort food. That mindset is hard to change.
One way SNAP-Ed is hoping to make a difference is by partnering with the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement, which uses strategies to increase school lunch participation, improve consumption of healthy food and reduce food waste.
It uses behavioral economics, Willcutt said. You take the healthiest food and put it at the front of the lunch line, make it first, front and center. You make it appealing. You have posters in the lunchroom with pictures of fruits and vegetables. Children still get to make choices, but youre just nudging them toward a healthier choice.
This fall, SNAP-Ed hopes to offer a free six-week program for adults called Cooking Matters, where limited-resource participants will learn to navigate a grocery store and to cook easy, healthful, low-cost meals.
This is a full-on fight at every corner at every level, Willcutt said. Our logic model is to get the kids when theyre young mostly in elementary schools but we hope to expand and work with them as they grow. Were not just going after elementary students, but their parents and caregivers, too. It wont work if the adults dont buy in.
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