Preventing and Reducing Childhood Obesity in the Capital Region

Melissa Toback stands outside behind a table that holds several large brown bags filled with produce.

ALBANY, N.Y. (August 3, 2022) - Melissa Toback, a Community Care Physicians Scholar at the School of Public Health, is helping to prevent and reduce childhood obesity in the Capital Region by providing low-income families with access to local produce and nutrition education.

Toback is earning her Master of Public Health (MPH), Master of Social Work (MSW), and a Graduate Certificate in Maternal and Child Health. As a part of her academic work, she is interning at Brightside Up, a local nonprofit that delivers resources to the community to improve the availability and quality of childcare. Support was provided for the internship from Community Care Physicians to UAlbany’s Maternal and Child Health program.

Through her placement, Toback works with Brightside Up’s Health Education and Services team— nurses and dieticians who provide trainings, support childcare providers, and deliver food, nutrition, physical activity, and wellness education programs directly to local childcare centers. Toback helps the team with food demonstrations, nutrition education and activities, program evaluation, and more.

“I applied for this internship because it seemed like an opportunity to not only work on a program and measure its effects, but to actually get to know the community the program was developed for,” says Toback, who was excited to work in a hands-on capacity with food access and nutrition in the local community.

Toback works on the Farm to Preschool (F2P) program, a nutritional program funded through the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program-Education and run by the New York State Department of Health. The program is designed to increase healthy food habits, relationships, and access for children in areas considered high need—and engages preschool children in healthy eating and activities. F2P in the Capital Region promotes local produce through farm stands and local food at childcare centers, provides education on gardening, and develops food demonstrations and recipe tastings.

With a grant from the United Way of the Greater Capital Region, Brightside Up also offers the Veggie Kids Club, in which families receive fresh, local produce and ingredients for weekly recipes entirely free of charge. A Zoom-based cooking class is offered, too—allowing participants to learn more on how to cook the ingredients. If they attend the cooking class, they receive a free kitchen tool in the following week’s bag of produce. Toback also works on this initiative, which she says has been extremely fun and has allowed her to see how children enjoy tasting and cooking different foods.

“Children enjoy vegetables!” says Toback, when asked if anything was surprising to her about her internship work. “Children really enjoy snacking on healthy foods if you introduce them in a fun, non-judgemental way.”

As an intern, Toback can be found not only in Brightside Up’s office, but at the local farmers market, on the farm, and at childcare centers, as well— getting to know the ins-and-outs of farming and childcare while also learning more about the community.

Each Wednesday, she picks up produce from Black Horse Farms at the farmers market, then heads to Denison farm to pick up local organic produce. Then, she helps to pack the produce into the Veggie Kids Club bags, and then sets up a distribution spot in Troy which is run by volunteers from Russell Sage’s undergraduate nutrition program. Afterwards, Toback heads to Viking Child Care Center to deliver bags of produce before returning to Brightside Up to prepare for Family Cooking Party Zoom meetings, which take place twice on Wednesdays and enable staff to cook a particular recipe with families, answer questions, and engage the children with healthy foods.

“It has been beyond fun to watch the children undertake tasks in serious, silly, and contemplative manners,” says Toback. “Moreover, it’s a glance into the experiences which will hopefully form children’s healthy relationships with cooking and food.”

Recipes so far this summer have included garlic broccoli, smashed potatoes with kale, and black bean veggie patties.

“This internship really showed me that public health initiatives can be fun— you can make your logo shaped like a salad! You can roar like a dinosaur while eating dinosaur kale!” Toback explains. “All the while, the initiative is working towards changing lives. There will always be some health concern to worry us, so why not come at it from a place of optimism?”

This experience at Brightside Up has increased Toback’s interest in food security, and she plans to pursue a career that focuses on food, nutrition, and agriculture through a public health lens.

“Food is fascinating, on all levels. It’s a need, it’s a cultural component, it’s an economic factor, it’s a canary in the coalmine vis a vis climate change, and the list can go on,” she says. “Whether I find myself working with a community organization, the Department of Health, or the USDA, I want to be working with communities and ensuring access to nutritious foods.”