Meet Hattiesburg's nutrition crusader

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HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) — The office of the Applied Research Division of the National Food Service Management Institute does not look like much. Just a small one-story house sitting on the edge of Fourth Street in Hattiesburg. Tucked inside a back bedroom-turned office is a crusader working to improve the nutrition of the nation's children.

Kristi Lewis, assistant director of the Applied Research Division, conducts research and develops resources that impact decisions that determine what a student anywhere in the nation may eat or drink for lunch in Child Nutrition Programs.

"Right now we are working on a study that evaluates children's milk preferences: fat free milk vs. milk flavors," said Lewis, 42.

It may seem a minor distinction, but it can be a key ingredient for a complete lunch. For some children enrolled in federally funded child nutrition programs, this glass of milk, may be the only milk the child drinks all day.

School lunch programs started in 1946 under President Harry S. Truman with the National School Lunch Act. The law recognized the need to protect the health of the nation's children, indirectly protecting national well-being. It's difficult for children to concentrate on learning while their stomach is growling, Lewis said.

"Kristi is a dedicated researcher," said Mary Frances Nettles, director of the Applied Research Division. "She is there every step of the way, from the initial planning phases for research projects, to providing guidance when research findings are being packaged for school nutrition professionals across the country."

Lewis began her research career working as a graduate student with her adviser, Dr. Kathy Yadrick, at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Yadrick and Lewis evaluated dietary habits of adults in the Lower Mississippi Delta Region of Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. They worked in Delta communities with residents to help them adopt healthier eating behaviors and physical activity, while accounting for availability and cost barriers. This project helped inspire Lewis to pursue a career as a research dietitian as she saw a need to greatly improve educational programs in Mississippi.

"Her engagement with the community was very important for her dissertation research, which she conducted in cooperation with the PACE Head Start and Five County Child Development Head Start program, with moms of children enrolled in the program," Yadrick said. "Her experience and rapport with childcare organizations has proven to be very important for the research she oversees for NFSMI."

After graduating Lewis quickly started working as a full-time researcher and staff member with the Department of Nutrition and Food Systems for almost seven years. Lewis' work was recognized by the College of Health. In 2007, she was awarded both Outstanding Doctoral Student in Nutrition and Food Systems and Outstanding Adjunct Faculty.

She continues to be recognized for her contributions to the nutrition field. In 2009, she was honored with the School Nutrition Association's Child Nutrition Showcase Award for Research.

Lewis strives to ensure research conducted by the Applied Research Division benefits local residents.

"She has a great volunteer spirit and has always been someone who was involved with community service," Yadrick said. "Hattiesburg public schools and the School Nutrition Association, focused on improving children's health and nutrition, are among the organizations that have benefited from her enthusiastic service and advocacy."

Lewis volunteers as a consultant to small organizations looking to make dietary changes.

"What I get the most joy out of is seeing people change at a local level," she said. "I believe that you should not just work to improve your own life, but the lives of others. To me, that makes life worth living."

As a child, Lewis participated in Head Start and the School Lunch Program.

"I want to give back to something that benefited me," she said. "I was one of those children."

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Information from: The Hattiesburg American, http://www.hattiesburgamerican.com

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