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Reviving their Roots

Friedman Fellow helps Native American communities boost health

Emily Piltch, NG16, found her passion in a Sacramento community garden 13 years ago.

There she saw how gardening gets children active and inspires them to eat the tomatoes, snap peas, and other vegetables they grow. She wondered if it could also help prevent and reduce childhood obesity, but she couldn’t find much research on the question, so she set out to study the evidence.

“We need more than anecdotes and good intentions to promote healthy food,” she says. “My goal is to show what works.”

Finding the Data

Piltch has conducted research to help rural and Native American communities strengthen their health by returning to their roots.

“Particularly among the Native American communities I’ve worked with, there’s a lot of interest in bringing back some of their traditional agriculture,” she says. But barriers, such as lack of healthy soil and limited access to water, and the ever-growing penchant for processed foods have caused current generations to move away from farming. The resulting poor nutrition has led to chronic health issues, such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.

Piltch’s research on agriculture led to her current project, working with partners in New Mexico to understand the economic, social, and cultural factors affecting Native American infant nutrition and breastfeeding. Piltch is a Friedman Fellow at the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, part of a select group of Ph.D. candidates and researchers nationwide who have been identified as future leaders in health and nutrition. Her fellowship is funded by the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman New York Foundation for Medical Research, which has recently increased its support of promising graduate students like Piltch with two significant gifts that create two endowed funds at the school.

Investing in the Future

In honor of the passion that the Friedman School’s most recent former dean has for graduate education, the Robin B. Kanarek Excellence in Graduate Student Research Fund will support doctoral student research and related travel. The Joan M. Bergstrom Fellowship honors the memory of the late Dr. Bergstrom, J62, a former trustee emerita and chair of the Friedman School’s Board of Advisors. This new fund will provide financial aid to exceptional Friedman School doctoral students, with a preference for students who are studying global nutrition issues. The Bergstrom Fellowship is the first gift to the Friedman School that will be matched dollar for dollar under the university’s Financial Aid Initiative, doubling the impact of the foundation’s gift on future Friedman School students.

Of her Friedman fellowship, Piltch says, “I’m extraordinarily grateful for the freedom that comes with the funding”— freedom to pursue her calling, diversify her projects, and collaborate with scholars and scientists in the health field from across the country. She adds, “My passionis to figure out how to…bring people together and to be the research arm to achieve the access to healthful living that these communities deserve.”