Student Impact:

Price students address childhood obesity at national policy competition

March 23, 2013

By Matthew Kredell

MPP students

USC Price students, from left, Julia Johnson, Jacquelyn Chou, Rhett-Alexander Paranay and Paul Chung display their trophy after winning the West Region competition at University of Washington.

A team of graduate students from the USC Price School of Public Policy reached the final round of the Policy Solutions Challenge USA national competition at American University in Washington, D.C. on March 22-23. Jacquelyn Chou, Paul Chung, Julia Johnson and Rhett-Alexander Paranay earned first place in the West Region of the competition in February — qualifying them as one of only seven schools to compete in the national finals.

The topic for the challenge focused on the growing epidemic of childhood obesity. The USC Price team, led by faculty advisor Diane Yoder, developed a written analysis of the underlying factors contributing to childhood obesity and provided three possible federal policy solutions.

In the West regional, USC Price finished first over the host school University of Washington, as well as the University of Utah, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

“Our students’ success is really a testament to the quality program we have at USC Price,” said Yoder, adjunct assistant professor at the Price School. “I think our curriculum really develops the skills that are needed to do well in this sort of competition. I would also say that these same skills are what serve our graduates so well when they go out and become working policy analysts.”

Childhood obesity is a specific area of interest for Johnson, an intern for the Maternal, Child, Adolescent/Adult Center at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

“It is very relevant to current issues and such a multidimensional problem,” Johnson said. “There isn’t any one solution you can give and say ‘Oh, we solved childhood obesity’ — which made it a good topic for the competition. Twenty percent of children entering kindergarten are already obese. If you are set off to such an unhealthy lifestyle, it’s hard to come back from that.”

In addition, the students credited their experience in Yoder’s class, “Foundations of Public Policy Analysis,” with preparing them for the competition. They researched and wrote the initial report in just five days.

“We pretty much treated it like one of the memos she had us write for her class,” Chung said. “We structured it the same way and made the same type of analysis. We just tried to make it a little more professional and a little longer. It made me realize the great instruction we’re getting at USC Price.”

The three policy alternatives suggested by the USC Price team were to eliminate tax deductions for fast-food advertisements, expand the “I am Moving, I am Learning” early childhood intervention program to all Head Start locations and to extend nationwide the Healthy Incentives Pilot that would offer Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program recipients a 30 percent subsidy on the purchase of fruits and vegetables or other healthy foods.

They also incorporated details learned from the course “Methods for Policy Analysis,” to include cost-benefit analysis for projecting the impact these possible solutions would make over the next 20 years.

“I think it’s incredibly valuable for policy students to be forced to take a stand on policy solutions and find what they believe to be most effective,” said Chou, a dual Master of Public Policy and Master of Planning student, who previously worked at the RAND Corporation in health policy. “These are the kind of decisions we will likely be making as professionals.”

Policy Solutions Challenge USA will be presenting the recommendations from all teams – USC Price, American University, Brown University, Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Arkansas, University of Washington and University of Wisconsin (the national winner) – to key decision-makers in government to encourage consideration of the new approaches developed by students.

“I think the luxury of having students work on a problem like this is that it can bring innovation and creativity that sometimes professionals immersed in a problem don’t have,” Yoder said. “Hopefully this competition will continue on and deal with other very difficult problems to solve.”