Costello Plays Key Role in Rollout of New MN Food Charter

									Charlie Plain |
																			October 1, 2015

When it comes to internships, the right position helps a student gain valuable technical experience, meet graduation requirements, and get a foot in the door to an exciting public health career.

Katie Costello discusses the Minnesota Food Charter,
Katie Costello explains the Minnesota Food Charter during a research poster presentation session.

In the case of Katie Costello (MPH ’15), her internship did that and much more.

Costello’s internship not only offered her invaluable experience helping with the rollout of an innovative state nutrition initiative, but it also served as a springboard for her master’s graduation project, and ultimately, a prestigious award.

Laying the Groundwork

Costello’s internship formed through a close partnership between SPH and the Minnesota Department of Health, and with the school’s Leadership Education and Training Program, which is funded by the federal government’s HRSA Maternal and Child Health Bureau.

The internship centered on MDH’s Minnesota Food Charter — a plan created to detail barriers and strategies for increasing healthy food access and consumption in the state.

MDH created the charter to help policymakers and community leaders combat surging diet-related health issues among Minnesotans that are contributing to mounting healthcare costs and lower worker productivity. Each year in Minnesota, poor nutrition leads to $2.8B spent on obesity-related healthcare costs and $17B lost in worker productivity.

Costello studied public health nutrition and has professional interests in food systems, food policy and increasing access to healthy foods, which made her a natural fit for the project.

Costello’s internship mentor during her work on the charter was Lisa Gemlo, the project’s lead and an SPH graduate.

“Katie’s a great student who has an eye for detail,” says Gemlo. “At the same time, she gets the big picture, which isn’t a common combination at her stage in professional development.”

A major part of Costello’s work involved drafting a series of seven “mini guides,” which are four-page booklets that offer strategies for increasing healthy food access in specific settings like childcare centers, worksites, and grocery stores.

Costello was responsible for all the interviewing, fact-finding, and writing for the guides.

“The grant had been cut, so we were overworked and understaffed and wouldn’t have been able to finish the mini guides without Katie’s help,” says Gemlo.

In developing the mini guides, Costello spent a lot of time thinking about how to tailor the charter’s information for particular audiences.

That work gave Costello an idea for her master’s degree research project.

How Will They Use It

“Katie realized that it would be important to investigate how people intended to use the charter, which would then help MDH determine the types of resources and programming needed for its wide adoption,” says Jamie Stang, an SPH associate professor and Costello’s adviser.

Specifically, Costello wondered which portions of the charter would be most important to its users.

Costello also wanted to know which tools and resources would help them to successfully employ the plan.

To find out, Costello worked with Gemlo to design a survey, which she then handed out to hunger relief, public health, education, agriculture, and research professionals attending the Charter’s unveiling last fall during the Minnesota Food Access Summit in Duluth.

Gemlo also guided Costello in analyzing the survey’s responses.

Costello says the results showed that people have a strong interest in pursuing strategies related to food skills for youth and adults.

Food skills include initiatives like expanding farm-to-school food programs; training food service professionals in preparing healthier meals; and offering cooking classes at community colleges.

Costello also says the survey results showed that charter users want to see improvements made to the food system infrastructure, and want to collaborate with civic planners and transportation officials to make it easier to access healthy foods.

Spreading the Word

“One of the most important aspects of Katie’s research is that the results are so applicable to the field of public health nutrition,” says Stang.

With that thought in mind, Stang invited Costello to the Association of State Public Health Nutritionists annual meeting held this past summer. In particular, Stang thought Costello should share her survey results by entering the student research poster presentation competition.

Costello entered the competition, and her research quickly became a hot topic at the conference.

“Katie generated a lot of interest among state public health nutritionists at the meeting about the concept of a food charter and how it could be implemented to enact policy, systems, and environmental changes,” says Stang.

Costello’s research — and work to promote the charter — were so well-received that it was eventually given the highest award: Costello won the presentation competition.

“I feel so lucky,” says Costello. “It was really an honor to win and it’s exciting that people recognized the innovative nature of my research and of the charter itself.”


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