Tackling childhood obesity in communities

Talita Jordan, MPH '13

May 28, 2013 — At age four, Talita Jordan told her mother — a young, single parent — that she wanted to be a doctor. She stuck with the plan, becoming chief resident at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Now, about to graduate from Harvard School of Public Health with an MPH in health policy, Jordan has a new ambitious plan. She is returning to D.C. to pilot a program aimed at tackling childhood obesity through community change that she hopes to eventually take nationwide.

As chief resident at Children’s, Jordan, known as “Dr. J”, took on the role of advocate for her young patients, often seeking to address the causes of their health problems, not just the symptoms. She became particularly struck by the complex web of factors behind the childhood obesity epidemic, particularly among minority kids. “It’s not just about the child’s food and physical activity,” Jordan said. “You have to change the entire family in order for the child to change. You have to change the community and make healthier choices the norm.”

In D.C., Jordan plans to create a community center that will tempt kids to move away from their screens and have fun being active. Jordan recalls the important role that such a center played in her own childhood. But she knows that it’s harder today to get kids out of the house, so she’s tailoring the program to her audience. Rather than prescribing that an overweight child spends daily time on a treadmill, for example, she will instead recommend a certain number of dancing or other active games. Families will be recruited for cooking classes, and local teens will be trained to teach classes and mentor younger kids.

Jordan found inspiration in the reality check she received from a low-income mother who she was attempting to teach about healthy eating. “She said, you take the amount of money I get every month and try to buy what you’re asking me to buy,” Jordan said. So Jordan did. She lived for several months on a $50-100 food budget and created a healthy meal plan for her clients around inexpensive staples such as dried beans and frozen fruit.

Because she listened, she gained the mothers’ trust and became credible in the community, Jordan said. She loved working with patients, but she began to see that she could help more people by working for change at the policy level. “I knew that a lot of what was going on in the health care system was frustrating, but I didn’t have the vocabulary to verbalize exactly what it was,” Jordan said. “I just knew there were things I wanted to change.”

Jordan received support to come to HSPH as a Mongan Commonwealth Fund Fellow in Minority Health Policy. The program provides students with additional leadership training and networking opportunities while they earn a MPH in health policy and management at HSPH. Although she came to the School with the idea for her program already in mind, the experience has given her the health policy vocabulary she lacked and experience building skills such as program evaluation, she said.

Amy Roeder

Photo: Aubrey Calo