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Reviving Their Roots

How one Friedman Fellow is helping Native American communities revive traditional agriculture to increase healthy living

Kneeling among the lettuce, tomatoes, and snap peas of a Sacramento community garden 13 years ago, Emily Piltch, NG16, started thinking about access to healthy food for kids.

As an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer, Piltch saw how participating in community gardening provided children with physical exercise, an understanding of food production, and an excitement about eating what they had grown. She wondered how community gardening could help prevent and reduce childhood obesity.

To explore the issue, Piltch pursued a master’s degree in public health and spent three years as a fellow with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She then joined a research team at the University of New Mexico Prevention Research Center to study food systems in rural and Native American communities as part of a childhood obesity prevention initiative. It was during this time in her home state of New Mexico that she found her passion.

“Particularly among the Native American communities I’ve worked with, there’s a lot of interest in bringing back some of their traditional agriculture,” says Piltch. But modern changes and barriers—lack of healthy soil, limited access to water, and the ever-growing penchant for processed foods—have caused current generations to move away from farming. That poor nutrition has led to chronic health issues, such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Piltch is directing her research to help these communities strengthen their health by reviving their roots.

At the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Piltch is now a Friedman Fellow, an honor reserved for the school’s top doctoral students, and joins a select group of Ph.D. candidates and researchers located at several institutions nationwide who have been identified as future leaders in the fields of health and nutrition. As a fellow, Piltch has received full tuition coverage and stipend funding for three years—without which she would not have been able to come back to school after six years in the professional world. “I’m extraordinarily grateful for the freedom that comes with the funding,” she says—freedom to pursue her calling, diversify her projects, and collaborate with scholars and scientists in the health field from across the country.

Where Great Minds Meet

Piltch’s experience on the ground, coupled with her talent for research, has made her a unique leader in her field. This June she will be presenting collaborative research at the Friedman Fellows Symposium in San Francisco.

Since 2008, this symposium, organized by the Friedman Foundation, has offered the Friedman Fellows it supports from across the country the opportunity to share their work and hear from internationally recognized experts in their fields. Friedman Fellows include both Ph.D. candidates like Piltch in fields related to nutrition and medical doctors working in fields related to diabetes, such as nephrology. “The Friedman Fellows Symposium is a really neat opportunity to learn what others are doing and to interact in person,” Piltch says. “We are each approaching problems from a different angle, and this event allows us to compare notes and learn from each other.”

Piltch finds that the Friedman School’s strength in interdisciplinary collaboration is a huge boon to her doctoral work. “I’m really interested in the concepts around food production and looking at anywhere along the chain of supply—transportation, agriculture, nutrition—where we can increase access to healthy food for communities and the everyday people within them,” she says. While Piltch and her advisor, Associate Professor Tim Griffin, come from different backgrounds, hers in childhood obesity and his in soil science, the two share an interest in supply chain issues and each benefits from the perspective of the other.

Research: The Unsung Hero

Piltch’s experience has helped her see that the effort to make healthy food more accessible to underserved communities must include a research component to complement advocacy work. “For instance, there’s a lot of anecdotal support for community gardening,” she says. “First Lady Michelle Obama is very supportive, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention promotes the benefits, but there’s not much research out there to really show the extent of the impact. Having solid research to support advocacy is essential to attaining grant funding and support.”

But, she observes, underserved communities can be mistrustful of researchers. “Within my field, it’s important to look at whatever you do through a lens of engaging the community as equal partners and knowing that we all bring strengths to the partnership,” she says. “It’s often attempted, but my passion is to figure out how to do that really well, to be that conduit to bring people together and to be the research arm to achieve the access to healthful living that these communities deserve.”