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MSU outlines nutrition initiative for Flint children

Simon Schuster
Special to The Detroit News

East Lansing — Michigan State University is tackling the hurdles facing Flint families in the wake of the water crisis, with a particular focus on nutrition as a way of combating lead poisoning in the city’s children.

Those efforts were in the spotlight at the university’s Board of Trustees meeting, where members heard from school officials and researchers such as Rick Sadler, a geographer working in MSU’s College of Human Medicine.

Sadler mapped the spotty availability of healthy food resources in Flint and discussed MSU’s efforts to boost nutrition, an important component in absorbing lead from the body, among the city’s children.

Sadler said that in the northwest part of the city, where healthy food was most scarce, children had the highest lead levels.

“The issue in Flint is we saw a doubling of elevated blood levels before and after the switch,” he said. “Tying into that is that since 2012, two years before the switch, we’ve lost five grocery stores, so it’s increasingly difficult to find healthy food.”

Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services is now using Sadler’s research to determine where nutrition-related funding efforts should be targeted, said Jeff Dwyer, the interim director of MSU Extension.

MSU Extension, the university’s main force for public outreach, is distributing fliers on good nutritional practices for combating elevated lead levels. It also is holding free classes on buying and cooking nutritious food for children.

“The class isn’t just about cooking, it is about how you take a very modest amount of money and use it wisely on behalf of nutrition for your children,” MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon said.

Denise Maybank, MSU’s vice president for student affairs and services, said the effort to assist Flint has extended to the student body.

She said 38 student groups are interested in the effort to help Flint. On GiveGab, a service used to track student volunteering efforts, people can find local organizations who need help and sign up.

“We will be about this effort. We will mobilize, 50,000 strong,” Maybank said. “As many of those young people who want to be a part of this experience and make a difference, we will do that.”

Kerry Nelson, president of the Flint City Council, was there to express his appreciation.

“You guys rock,” Nelson said. “This school, Michigan State University — I don’t know what we would do without you.”

He said the consequences of the crisis mean “the residents of Flint have to depend on the kindness and generosity of people like you.”

Michigan State’s College of Human Medicine has been based in the city for 40 years. It was there that Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha first documented the elevated blood lead levels among Flint children, and attributed them to the city’s switch to Flint River water in April 2014.

A faculty member and director of the college’s pediatric residency program, Hanna-Attisha is credited, along with Virginia Tech water quality researcher Marc Edwards, with thrusting the Flint water crisis into the national spotlight.

Hanna-Attisha was not present — she was occupied in Flint, spearheading the health effort for children through the new Pediatric Public Health Initiative.

“Really it was a Michigan State team providing science that helped to give voice to what was happening in the community,” said Dean Sienko, an associate dean in the College of Human Medicine.