Obesity contributes to more than 400,000 deaths in the U.S. each year, while millions of Americans lack access to healthy, affordable foods. SPH faculty member Melissa Laska tackles both these issues as she pushes the boundaries to understand — and do something about — the challenges people face when it comes to eating well and staying healthy.
For her pioneering work and her promise, the University of Minnesota recently named Laska a Distinguished McKnight University Professor. She will hold the title for as long as she remains at the University and her name will be added to the Scholar’s Walk.
“It’s been such an honor to receive this award,” says Laska. “The support it provides over the next five years will go a long way toward advancing my research on improving healthy food access, reducing food insecurity, and supporting communities in healthy food practices. Now, more than ever, families are struggling with inadequate access to healthy foods, and solutions are urgently needed.”
For more than a decade, Laska has led both local and national research on healthy food access, particularly in urban centers. In some underserved communities, the only food options are corner and convenience stores and fast food outlets. Laska has worked with small food retailers to understand the barriers to stocking and selling healthy food. Her work was instrumental in helping create the Minneapolis Healthy Corner Store Program to assist small food stores in stocking healthy foods, particularly fresh produce, and, in 2013, the Minneapolis Staple Foods Ordinance. The ordinance became the first policy in the U.S. to require licensed grocery stores, which include corner stores, dollar stores, and gas stations, to carry a requisite amount of healthy foods.
“Now, more than ever, families are struggling with inadequate access to healthy foods, and solutions are urgently needed.”
Laska, who is co-director of the Healthy Weight Research Center, has also led some of the very first work with young people in transition from adolescence to adulthood, a critical time for unhealthy weight gain that is rarely studied. She was also among the first investigators to show how socioeconomic burdens among college students take a toll on their health. Her research blazed a new trail for understanding disparities in weight and weight behaviors by sexual identity, including diverse groups of young people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer and whom have not received enough attention from the health research community.
Laska’s current and on-going research highlighting food insecurity in college students has already served as a cornerstone for the recent Government Accountability Office’s report on SNAP access for college students, and she is a key member of the University’s Thrive: Basic Needs Coalition, a campus action initiative addressing student hunger and housing instability on the Twin Cities campus.
“I am so happy that the University has honored Melissa with this professorship,” says John Finnegan, dean of the School of Public Health. ”Her work with and for young people is extraordinary. Battling the social disparities of health is a major commitment, and Melissa is absolutely devoted to giving all people the chance for a healthy life. We are proud of what she does and that she is part of our school.”
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