La Follette School Professor Jason Fletcher received a $440,000 two-year grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to study the short- and long-term influences of school peers on childhood obesity and fitness in New York City.
Fletcher and colleagues will analyze longitudinal data from the NYC FITNESSGRAM, a citywide annual fitness assessment for more than 1 million K–12 students, to identify the importance of peer effects in explaining childhood obesity. He hopes the project will help inform future policies more effectively and slow obesity rates.
He will work with Kiersten Strombotne from the American Institutes for Research and students at UW–Madison.
“Although genetics is a key determinant of obesity – even in children -- genetic shifts cannot account for the rapid and sudden rise in prevalence,” Fletcher says. “Similarly, the increase in the relative prices of healthy foods and declines in physical activity requirements can only account for a modest fraction of the total rise in children’s obesity.”
One set of processes that can amplify the impacts of genetic and environmental factors is social and peer influence.
The study is the first of its kind to combine research on the causal peer effects of obesity in school settings with a unique cross-cohort empirical design from the economics of education literature. Fletcher and colleagues are conducting this and other research projects through the Wisconsin Policy Analysis Lab.
Two La Follette School students work in the lab, which has 15 collaborators, including Genome Factor co-author Dalton Conley and five UW–Madison faculty members. Several La Follette School alumni worked at the lab as students, and Fletcher expects to hire two more students in the fall with financial support from the Herb Kohl Public Service Research Competition award he received in April 2017.