October 9, 2019
Jessica Soldavini, MPH, RD, LDN, is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Nutrition at the UNC-Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health. With a new fellowship providing $119,997 over two years, she will investigate strategies to address food insecurity and improve dietary quality among low-income populations.
Soldavini, who also is a graduate research assistant at UNC’s Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention (HPDP), received the prestigious predoctoral fellowship from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). It will support her in completing her dissertation research and pursuing professional development opportunities related to nutrition research, education and policy.
“This fellowship is one of many avenues through which Jessica’s innovative applied research and commitment to community engagement will benefit people in North Carolina and enable her to develop effective models that can be used across the country,” said Alice Ammerman, DrPH, Mildred Kaufman Distinguished Professor of nutrition, director of HPDP and Soldavini’s adviser.
Soldavini’s dissertation project focuses on a nutrition and cooking education program for children. Her research will investigate whether participating in the program results in children enjoying fruits and vegetables more, feeling more confident cooking and making healthy choices, and actually eating healthier and cooking more often.
“Children in the United States are not meeting Dietary Guidelines recommendations,” Soldavini said. “Over time, we have seen a decline in preparing and eating meals at home, as well as opportunities for children to learn how to cook. This is concerning, because cooking and eating home-cooked meals is associated with healthier eating patterns. This fellowship will provide support to address these important issues in the context of a nutrition and cooking education program for children.”
Since 2015, Soldavini has worked as a graduate research assistant with No Kid Hungry North Carolina. The child hunger initiative, house within HPDP, addresses food insecurity by increasing access to underutilized federal child nutrition programs that provide school breakfasts, summer meals and after-school meals. Soldavini has been especially involved with supporting federal summer nutrition programs, which provide free summer meals to children in low-income areas.
After joining No Kid Hungry NC as a research assistant, Soldavini added an after-school nutrition education program to their offerings. Cooking Matters for Kids, which she continues to lead, teaches third through fifth graders how to make healthy food choices and prepare low-cost, healthy meals and snacks. Through hands-on classes, children learn basic cooking skills, practice interpreting nutrition labels and learn how to tweak recipes to make them healthier. Soldavini’s dissertation research will build on her work with the program.
“There are numerous organizations across the country providing cooking education programs to children; however, there is limited research looking at how effectively these programs improve dietary intake,” said Soldavini. “I’m excited for the opportunity to build on the work I have done with the Cooking Matters for Kids program and conduct this research to gain a better understanding of the type of impact these programs can have.”
Soldavini also will use support from her fellowship to create opportunities for North Carolina college students to connect with federal nutrition programs. Working with both No Kid Hungry NC and the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, Soldavini will create resources for summer meal sites that want to recruit college students as volunteers and a training for students that orients them to how the Summer Nutrition Program works. She also will manage 15-20 internships each semester for UNC students who want to work with summer meal sites or provide nutrition and cooking education to children in after-school programs.
To Soldavini, college students and under-resourced meal program sites are a perfect match. The sites need support, and as volunteers, students can gain real-world experience working with programs that fight hunger. Having already recruited and mentored nearly 100 student volunteers to lead Cooking Matters for Kids classes and provide nutrition education at summer meal sites, she has seen first-hand how the experiences help students grow.
“I’ve noticed that a lot of college students are interested in food insecurity but aren’t aware of many of the ways they can help,” said Soldavini. “In my past work with students, I’ve seen them learn about nutrition and cooking skills alongside the kids they’re working with. It also gets them thinking about future career opportunities, whether they’re students in nutrition, social work or even an unrelated field.”
NIFA fellowships also include support for professional development. Soldavini is planning a career in academia, hoping to teach and conduct research about food insecurity, federal nutrition programs, nutrition policy and nutrition education.
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