Lauren Au: Child Nutrition Researcher
Photo: Jenny Pfeiffer
Drawn to nutrition and dietetics from a prevention perspective, Dr. Lauren Au strives to fight and prevent childhood obesity through improving federal nutrition initiatives, such as the National School Lunch Program and the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). After earning her doctorate at Tufts University, Au completed an American Association for the Advancement of Science Congressional Fellowship sponsored by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Foundation Grace L. Ostenso Nutrition and Public Policy Fellowship, where she worked on a summer meals bill to help feed hungry children. As a researcher at the University of California Nutrition Policy Institute, Au was awarded two grants by the National Institutes of Health and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to examine disparities in the school nutrition environment and its relationship with childhood obesity. “I am excited to be able to help shape child nutrition legislation for years to come,” she says.
Tell us about your work. Who are your audiences? What need does this work help serve?
I examine how to improve federal nutrition programs, such as the National School Lunch Program or the Women’s Infants and Children’s (WIC) program, to prevent childhood obesity and reduce health disparities. For example, our WIC research has shown that both online and in-person nutrition education can increase healthier breakfast behaviors, which has the potential to reach close to 8 million low-income mothers and children. I am also a member of the Academy’s Legislative Public Policy Committee, where we help develop and advocate for nutrition and dietetics legislation aimed to greatly improve health outcomes in the many communities we serve.
What inspired you to undertake this work or project? Include when and how you became involved.
After my doctorate at Tufts, I completed an American Association for the Advancement of Science & Technology Congressional Fellowship, funded by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Foundation. During my time on Capitol Hill, I worked on a Summer Meals Bill to improve access to reach hungry kids during the summer months. I worked with non-profits, think tanks, and other Congressional offices to develop a bill that would utilize the best available evidence and impact the most amount of kids. Through this process, I realized I was most passionate about conducting the evidence-based research to inform policy development, rather than developing the legislation itself.
What do you personally find most rewarding about your efforts?
Academia is a long process, but when you have the compelling research to share with legislators and policymakers, it can be extremely powerful. I just received two large grants to examine the school nutrition environment and the relationship with childhood obesity over the past decade. I am excited to be able to help shape child nutrition legislation in years to come!
What about food, diet, nutrition or health drew you to this field?
I love fighting the good fight. I was drawn to nutrition from a prevention perspective. I watched both my parents pass away from chronic diseases at a young age, and I wanted so desperately to prevent this hardship from happening to my close family and friends. Once I changed my major to nutrition and dietetics, I started to excel at my coursework and I have never looked back. The field of nutrition is an exciting place to be, and it is constantly changing and evolving. There needs to be more dietitians, stakeholders, and policymakers advocating for strong nutrition policies to drastically improve our childhood obesity landscape.