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Big grant to assess fat-fighting project

A Queen Mary geographer has secured a grant of £916,803 to evaluate a major Government-led initiative to help curb obesity in nine English towns.

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Evaluating the Healthy Towns project
Evaluating the Healthy Towns project

Dr Steven Cummins, an award-winning public health specialist, received the funding from the Department of Health’s Policy Research Programme.

The money will be used to appraise the success of the ‘Healthy Towns’, a three-year programme designed to encourage residents in pilot areas to eat better and take more exercise.

On obtaining the grant, Dr Cummins said: “This is an exciting opportunity to understand how local organisations and stakeholders understand and implement the steps that communities are taking to combat obesity. We hope that findings from the project will inform policymakers on the best approaches to create environments that discourage obesity."

The ‘Healthy Towns’ programme is part of the government's ‘Healthy Weight, Healthy Lives’ strategy, drawn up in 2008 to combat rising obesity rates - nearly a quarter of adults and a fifth of children are obese, according to latest figures.

Tewkesbury, Halifax, Thetford, Tower Hamlets, Manchester, Middlesbrough, Dudley, Sheffield and Portsmouth were all given ‘Healthy Town’ status last November.

Since that date, each area has match-funded a share of a £30m government pot to develop a host of schemes related to cycling, walking, healthy eating and green spaces.

Among the measures employed is a new award scheme promoting how healthy fast food outlets, cafes and restaurants are in Tower Hamlets.

Thetford has introduced a "cycle recycle" project which supports people to buy and maintain bikes; while Halifax has set up a grow your own fruit and vegetables scheme for social housing tenants.

Involvement in the ‘Healthy Towns’ evaluation project marks an exciting stage in the research Dr Cummins has been developing in over the last few years.

He leads the growing Healthy Environments Research Programme (HERP), a research group based at Queen Mary, dedicated to understanding the effect of the social, physical, cultural, policy and built environments on health.

Dr Cummins has also recently been awarded the 2009 Association for the Study of Obesity Young Achiever Award, which recognises research contributions in the field of obesity made by those aged 40-years or younger.

He is currently supported by a National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Fellowship and a Phillip Leverhulme Prize.

Dr Cummins will carry out the evaluation together with academics from the University of Cambridge, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and the Universities of East Anglia and Newcastle.

He will also be supported for the next three and a half years by a senior research Fellow; a research Fellow and a project support assistant - funded by the Department of Health grant. All three will be based in Queen Mary’s Department of Geography.

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