University of Washington School of Public Health

UW SPH News: SPH Grad Students Help Local Public Health Department Assess Healthy Eating Policies

SPH Grad Students Help Local Public Health Department Assess Healthy Eating Policies


To promote better health, the City of Seattle recently passed legislation requiring vending machines operated on city property to be stocked with healthier foods and beverages. At least half the items available were to be low-fat, low-salt or whole grain. It seemed like a straightforward policy.

From left, graduate students Sara Diedrich, Jonae Perez, Doris Chung, Alexandra Kaufman and Maia Kurnik.

But a graduate student from the University of Washington School of Public Health found the policy was difficult to implement. "Compliance within city departments was not very good," said Jonae Perez, a second-year master's student in Public Health Nutrition. She used photos, surveys and interviews with managers to evaluate the new policy in six city departments, not including parks and recreation. She found only 10 percent of vending machines met the new guidelines.

Perez found confusion over guidelines as well as a system where each city department has multiple vendors and numerous site managers overseeing the machines. "The structure of vending is surprisingly complex and hard for one person to manage," she said.

Perez was one of five SPH graduate students who spent the summer conducting research for the Healthy Eating and Active Living (HEAL) unit of Public Health – Seattle & King County. The department is a joint agency of city and county government.

The students essentially served as consultants for the health department, providing insights and conducting research while gaining practical experience and fulfilling their fieldwork requirements, said Jennifer Otten, PhD, assistant professor of health services. "Students get this fabulous experience learning about public health and the challenges these agencies face," said Otten, who met weekly with students as their faculty adviser. "They can also put project deliverables on their resume."

Each student was matched with a content expert at the agency, while local health staff identified topics or policies they wanted studied in more depth. The research projects took from 40 to 160 hours each. All of the students had taken Professor Donna Johnson's Public Health Nutrition class the previous fall to learn about the policy process and how to evaluate it.

"I think it's really awesome that the school is working with the public health department," Perez said. "It's hands-on experience and an application of everything we've learned." All of the students have presented or are planning to present their findings to health department staff. In addition, Perez has met with an adviser to Mayor Mike McGinn.

Public Health – Seattle and King County worked with Dr. Otten to select the highest priority topics for the students to tackle. "The students were integral in helping us evaluate current policies, like vending, and helping us explore future topic areas into which we might expand. Students bring cutting-edge research knowledge to these projects as well as interdisciplinary knowledge," said HEAL manager Celeste Schoenthaler.

The student projects were the latest example of collaboration between the School of Public Health and Public Health – Seattle and King County. Several county health officials also serve as adjunct faculty, while Otten, the assistant professor, has a unique position where she is contracted out to the agency for one day a week as a senior researcher and policy scientist.

Other SPH students and their projects:

Sara Diedrich surveyed local health departments across the country about their sugar-sweetened beverage policies.

Alexandra Kaufmann reviewed school wellness policies in King County to understand changes in policies from 2009 to 2012.

Doris Chung made recommendations on voluntary measures the health department could pursue to encourage restaurants to serve healthier kids' meals.

Maia Kurnik looked at New York City's efforts to ban oversize soda drinks, including the scientific evidence for it, reasons it was rejected in court, and lessons learned.