Tashara Leak lab members at City Harvest

Leak Research Group is committed to education, equity and empowerment in nutrition

Youth from marginalized communities are at a higher risk for poor health outcomes such as obesity, type 2 diabetes and stress, and face numerous barriers to healthy food choices. This is a problem Division of Nutritional Sciences Assistant Professor Tashara Leak wants to address, partnering with community stakeholders to conduct research that investigates the intersection of adolescence, poverty, diet and health, while improving lives in the process.

Leak joined Human Ecology in July of 2017, arriving with a grant from the Duke-UNC U.S. Department of Agriculture Center for Behavioral Economics and Healthy Food Choice Research and a year to spend those funds. She teamed up with City Harvest, a food recovery organization committed to reducing hunger in New York City offering various programming such as their Healthy Retail Program.

City Harvest acted as a liaison for Leak by approaching stores who are participating in the Healthy Retail Program and asking owners if they would be willing to work with her in developing a healthy grab-and-go snack pack marketed to adolescents, dubbed the Corner Store Project.

This type of partnership with community organizations is the bedrock of Leak’s work.

“There is distrust between some communities and academic institutions, particularly when it comes to research, because too often researchers are perceived as going into a community, asking our questions, conducting our research and then leaving the community without leaving the community with something,” Leak said. “It’s our job not just to study problems, but to solve them. Having a seat at the table with these community organizations is part of that.”

Leak’s Corner Store Project team visited 34 stores in 30 days to find out how many fruits, vegetables, and whole grains were available for purchase. The aim of the study was to see if it was feasible for corner stores to sell healthy grab-and-go snack packs.

Leak’s research assistants then interviewed store representatives about their willingness to carry such a product, support they might need in the form of training or equipment for producing or storing the snack packs, and how much their customers might be willing to pay for such an item.

Next the research assistants surveyed youth stopping at the stores after school to ask them to rate vegetables and healthier snack items like popcorn and pretzels, and how much they would be willing to spend on a healthy snack. The research assistants also collected data on how much kids spent at the store that day.

Leak’s team is analyzing the data, but there have already been some encouraging conclusions. While only around a quarter of the participating stores already carried grab-and-go snack packs, the majority said they would be willing to try to sell them.

“This is why partnering with community organizations matters,” Leak said. “These stores were already working with City Harvest, so they were already invested in improving the quality of products available to their customers. If I had just tried to recruit stores that weren’t already partnered with City Harvest, I would have gotten a much different response.”

The team plans to complete their data analysis next spring, then apply for funding to make the snack packs and identify ways to encourage kids to buy them.

“The goal of all of my projects is to inform a program or policy,” Leak said. “Long-term, we’d like to get food distributors to make these kits so the storeowners don’t have to. City Harvest has already been in conversations with one of the two main distributors in the area, but the distributor thought it was too risky. We hope to provide them with the data to take this step.”

“Nutrition education programs tend to be centered on teaching facts about nutrition and diet, without thinking about a person holistically and acknowledging that food plays an important role in who we are and in our cultures.”

Tashara Leak
Division of Nutritional Sciences

Undergraduate research assistant and Global and Public Health Sciences major Athena Wong ’19 worked on the Corner Store Project with Leak, first in the development of study instruments and background research, and then in data collection and field research over the summer through a Cornell Cooperative Extension internship. Wong described Leak as passionate about her work and invested in her students as people, not just as assistants.

“I love the work she does serving underserved urban populations,” Wong said. “It’s important and refreshing. She’s very hands-on. She cares a lot about everything we’re working on and she takes a lot of time to really flesh out how we can go into these communities and do good rather than harm. It’s a big part of why I love working in her lab. Too often harm is done because an understanding of the cultural context isn’t there.”

For her flagship project, the Advanced Cooking Education (ACE) Program, Leak is partnering with 4-H to develop a pilot after school program for eighth-graders aimed at improving health outcomes for kids in marginalized communities and provide them with valuable skills in and out of the kitchen. The program will run in four Title I schools – schools with a high percentage of students from low-income families – in New York City beginning in the fall of 2019.

The program is another example of Leak’s style of research. She asked a Title I middle school principal what his kids needed. The answer? More after school programs. Next, she connected with Andy Turner, the New York State 4-H program leader and assistant director of Cornell Cooperative Extension, who told her of 4-H’s efforts nationwide to increase diversity among youth in their after-school programs.

ACE will run for sixteen weeks – eight sessions in the fall and eight in the spring – a longer period than most nutrition education programs in hopes of having a greater chance for a lasting impact. The program will also recognize the many barriers to healthy food choices, and it will incorporate ten hours of community service and ten hours of career counseling.

“Nutrition education programs tend to be centered on teaching facts about nutrition and diet, without thinking about a person holistically and acknowledging that food plays an important role in who we are and in our cultures,” Leak explained.

When students arrive for the weekly session, they will receive a healthy snack and begin with a mindfulness-based stress reduction exercise while slow, instrumental hip hop plays in the background. “It’s an opportunity to acknowledge the stress of poverty and a way to give them tools to use throughout the day to breathe, re-connect with themselves and self-reflect,” Leak said.

The bulk of the program time will be spent learning culinary skills such as quick-cooking whole grains, blanching vegetables and knife skills. Students will work with a partner to prepare a fiber-rich dinner representing their diverse cultural and racial backgrounds, which they will take home to feed their families. “This will reduce the stress of parents because they don’t have to make dinner for that night and the parent will be more supportive of their child sticking with the program because they get something tangible from it,” Leak said.

Leak explained that many kids are already cooking at home, something she found while conducting a behavioral economics study aimed at encouraging kids to eat more vegetables through changes in their home kitchens. “Usually some life event happened that throws kids into this role – a divorce, a parent with a new job working second shift, a parent developed a drug addiction – and the kids had to step up and become the person who prepares food for their younger siblings.”

This means ACE has the potential to positively impact not only the eighth graders involved, but the younger siblings they feed at home as well.

The first three years of the program are partially funded through a $35,000 a year Hatch grant and a $30,000 a year Smith-Lever grant, but Leak estimates a full-scale three year study will require $1 million to $1.5 million in funding. At the conclusion of the pilot, Leak expects students to have improved health outcomes, eating habits and be more likely to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

“If you’re doing this type of work, you need to be in a department that understands and supports your work,” Leak said. “It takes time and there are more variables than if I worked with mice in a lab. I feel fortunate to work in a Division with a director who supports that and in a College that is committed to extension and community-based work.”