By Tina Dirmann

staff writer for BCBS Louisiana Foundation

Peter Katzmarzyk, associate executive director for population science at Pennington Biomedical Research Center.
Peter Katzmarzyk, associate executive director for population science at Pennington Biomedical Research Center.

It’s only been a few months since BCBSLAF officially kicked-off Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana, a multi-million dollar grant program targeting the obesity epidemic and overall chronic health challenges plaguing Louisiana families.  But already, city officials and leading non-profits across the state are rising to that challenge, making the most of some $27 million in grant investments to 12 projects (representing 500 agencies across the state), all focused on making a difference in Louisiana’s dismal health statistics.

And to ensure this isn’t simply a throw-money-at-a-problem-and-see-what-happens kind of initiative, foundation officials sought the help of the Baton Rouge based Pennington Biomedical Research Center,  an LSU fact-finding facility internationally renowned for its study and understanding of  the triggers behind chronic disease (specifically emphasizing the role of  obesity and diabetes). Pennington will devise tools to measure the impact of Challenge Grant programs in communities across the state, getting to the bottom of what works, what doesn’t, and what should be emulated across the state.

And undertaking that charge is Peter Katzmarzyk, associate executive director for population science at Pennington Biomedical.  Peter recently spoke to us about his work following the Challenge Grant’s impact and about putting the “science of health” into practice for the state – and maybe even the country.


Q:  We talk so much about the money invested into various health programs, but not as much is heard about what happens after that. So explain how Pennington’s role in the Challenge Grant program is different.

A (Peter): So many projects get started, but after they’re launched, and even after they are finished, nobody knows if it worked or not. So maybe everyone had a well intentioned idea, and people  liked it, and people put money into it – but did it work? Was it effective in making a change? So, we are here to help each of the 12 grantees design an evaluation plan for their program.


Q: So Pennington staffers will devise and guide these measures for tracking changes?

A: Yes, we want to measure if what we are doing is actually changing lives – is it improving activity levels, the way people eat, the way people think about their health. Are transformative things really happening?


Q: But change can be so hard to measure, especially when it comes by way of a series of small steps spread all over the state. How do you do it?

A: Well, let’s say a community put in a walking trail. That’s great, but then we will come in and actually measure usage. We will be interviewing people on the trails, asking how often they use it, how it’s impacted their lives. And we’ll distribute questionnaires to the community asking about awareness of the trails and its impact on their lives. And we’ll do the same for parks, for playgrounds… We are measuring usage and impact.


Q: I know it’s early in the program, which really just got underway a few months ago. But aren’t you already active in areas affected by the Challenge Grant projects?

A: Yes, we are. Because we want to document the improvements we see associated with the programs over time, it’s important we start now so we establish a baseline. And then we will continue evaluating each project over the next three years. We need to know where we started so we can eventually understand how far we’ve come.


A:  And how did Pennington Biomedical end up partnering with the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation?

B:  It was Christy Reeves (BCBSLAF executive director) who presented this idea to us. She and I both saw how our missions aligned, since our focus has long been on the study of chronic diseases and obesity. So our missions really came together on this. We are natural partners.


A: And this isn’t the first time BCBSLAF and Pennington have worked together for a common purpose, correct?

Q: Right, this builds on our existing partnership. We have partnered with them for our annual Childhood Obesity Conference and our annual Physical Activity Report Card for children. And it’s that report card that really spurred a lot of what’s happening now. Every year, we put out this report and we saw no change in physical activity and obesity rates among children. And you can’t expect the change to come if we don’t do anything. The foundation saw that, and so now they’re trying to do something different to really make an impact.


A: Well, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you, Peter. It sounds like you are genuinely thrilled to be a part of the Challenge Grant initiatives.

Q: Yes, we’re very proud to be a part of all this. So often, you don’t get to see your science translated into real public health improvement. This is an opportunity to see the scientific evidence applied in Louisiana, and perhaps even become a model for the entire country. And that’s very exciting.