Closing the Gap: A Funder Gives to Act on the Link Between Diet and Cancer

At this point, it's widely accepted that lifestyle factors like diet and exercise habits are important contributors to health and risk factors for disease. It's also pretty clear that lifestyle factors like diet and exercise habits are really difficult to change.

Recently, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation announced an investment in the hard-to-intervene lifestyle zone with a recent $2.5 million grant to City of Hope, a research and treatment center based in Duarte, California, near L.A., known for its cancer care and science, along with its work in diabetes and other diseases.

Why did Hilton go to a cancer center to explore this area? Partly because Hilton and City of Hope have some history together. But also because cancer is a big part of the lifestyles and health story.

Most people are used to seeing warnings about the relationship between diet/obesity and the risk for chronic and metabolic conditions like diabetes. Perhaps slightly less well known is the link with cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, about a third of cancer deaths are connected to preventable causes like excess weight, poor nutrition, and a sedentary lifestyle.

And though it's hardly news that exercise and good nutrition are crucial, we still have lots to learn about connecting those research findings with health policies and personal practices, Hilton told us. This is true in the Los Angeles area's San Gabriel Valley (which City of Hope serves), where nearly 28 percent of children aged two to 11 are overweight, and 23 percent of teens aged 12 to 17 are categorized as obese. It's also true that throughout the country, too many kids and adults are overweight and under-exercised.

Part of Hilton's interest, here, is to close the gap between the research and the real, something we've written about often at Inside Philanthropy, as organizations seek to translate science findings into real-world policies and practices.

Hilton's $2.5 million grant to City of Hope launched a five-year initiative to reduce cancer risk in the Los Angeles area by promoting healthy eating and physical activity, particularly among school children. Their long-range plan is to replicate the initiative’s successful strategies across Southern California and then nationally.

So the grant will try to connect research, policy, and practice.

Two annual research grants will determine the best means to prevent cancer through dietary changes. Research will also be interwoven into the community projects funded by the grant, including collecting data on glucose levels in participants pre- and post-intervention.

In policy, City of Hope will support school wellness policies and the adoption of city and/or state policy changes that promote healthy communities, especially around food policy and the environment.

And the initiative will focus on four community-based City of Hope interventions:  

  • Expanding “Eat, Move, Live!” and K-12 outreach to local Duarte schools. It's a community-based nutrition and physical activity program that encourages physical activity and healthy eating among underserved populations, teaching practical skills, such as reading food labels and preparing affordable, healthy meals, as well as exercise sessions.
  • Hosting two nutritional summits to raise awareness about the issue and share research.
  • Partnering with Seeds of Hope, a Los Angeles Episcopal Diocese program that turns unused land into productive gardens and orchards, to train 280 of its staff on the cancer institution’s “Hope Starts With Me.” The program educates participants on how the body processes food, how nutrition affects the pancreas, weight and health, and how to prepare healthy meals.
  • Opening an 1,800-square-foot farm lab and teaching kitchen that will produce vegetables grown by community members and space for classes on healthy meal preparation. In addition, a City of Hope K-12 science education program—developed in partnership with the Duarte Unified School District and National Institutes of Health—will promote student interest in science and research careers with a focus on nutrition.

This aspect of nutrition and health is not one of Hilton's main areas of priority and expertise. But the social component of family, diet and lifestyle factors fits generally with Hilton's work in youth, health and underserved populations.

“By the end of the five-year project, we hope that City of Hope will be successful in developing public health strategies that help prevent cancer and promote healthy lifestyles among children and families," said Hilton's Shaheen Kassim-Lakha, DrPH, director of international programs.