Karen R. Flórez

In Funded Scholars

Karen R.

Flórez

DrPH, MPH

Assistant Professor
CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy

Professional Bio

Dr. Flórez’s training and research experiences are directly related to her deep-rooted interest in the sociocultural determinants of health. She first began exploring the intersection between culture and health as an undergraduate medical anthropology student, when she focused on understanding medical systems and health equity among disadvantaged populations. Upon graduation, she worked for a nonprofit research firm to investigate the barriers that impeded low-income Latino women from receiving preventive cancer screening exams, an experience that solidified her commitment to public health and served as a catalyst for her decision to pursue research at the graduate level. She further developed her interest in the sociocultural determinants of health behaviors at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health through the training she received in the Department of Sociomedical Sciences. Throughout her graduate studies, she was exposed to different methodological and theoretical perspectives, which enabled her to explore the ways in which sociocultural factors (e.g., acculturation, fatalism) shape health behaviors among Latinos. Her early training and research experience culminated in a dissertation that tested a novel theoretical framework to investigate whether patterns of assimilation were differentially associated with obesity among Latino adults. Since receiving her doctorate, she has continued her training with funds from a postdoctoral Diversity Supplement to an NCI-funded grant. This grant has allowed her to use social network analysis to investigate the role of social networks and ties within the food environment in an urban food desert in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She has also continued her work on acculturation by conducting a cross-sectional analysis to investigate the association between exposure to the U.S. and obesity in a representative population of Mexicans living in the U.S and Mexico.  Collectively, these research experiences have enabled her to submit a competitive application to New Connections, which will allow her to further explore the interplay between sociocultural and neighborhood-level factors and their impact on childhood obesity among low-income children.

Project Description

Modifying the food environment to support healthy eating has been proposed as a way to reduce obesity among low-income African-Americans. However, we know very little about the interplay between the home food environment and the obesogenic neighborhood environment, especially for low-income African-American families. This study will evaluate whether and in what ways the home food environment modifies the effects of a new full-service supermarket on children’s diet in two low-income, African-American food deserts in Pittsburgh: the Hill District (intervention) and Homewood neighborhoods (control). The study has two specific aims: (1) to determine the effect of the new supermarket on children’s consumption of fruits, vegetables, and sugar-sweetened beverages (Hypothesis: The impact of a new supermarket on diet will not be independent, but will depend upon the pre-existing home food environment and parental child-feeding practices); (2) to test whether specific home food environment variables (i.e., breakfast norms, family food and beverage choices, family eating patterns), and parental child-feeding practices (i.e., parental restriction or reward with unhealthy snacks) moderate the effect of a new supermarket on children’s consumption of fruits, vegetables, and sugar-sweetened beverages (Hypothesis: The home food environment and parental child-feeding practices will moderate the effect of the supermarket). Achieving these aims will provide insights into how and under what conditions access to full-service supermarket impacts children’s diet, particularly among low-income families with children.

My New Connections Experience

I applied to New Connections because I wanted to broaden my research portfolio in food-related environments and policies to reduce childhood obesity while maintaining a focus on the study of health disparities among vulnerable populations. I am particularly excited by this project because it will bring me one step closer to achieving my long-term career goal of conducting research that impacts health policy directly. That is, policymakers have shown enthusiasm for introducing full-service supermarkets into neighborhoods that have been characterized as food deserts because supermarkets typically offer greater availability of fresh produce at lower cost than most other types of food outlets. However, findings from existing research are mixed as to whether greater access to supermarkets produces the desired results (i.e., healthy food purchases and eating behaviors). New Connections has given me an opportunity to make a significant contribution to this debate since one reason for these divergent findings may be a lack of studies examining the role of the home environment in mitigating the effect of supermarket access on children’s diets. Specifically, factors in the home environment likely modify the influence of the neighborhood food environment on children’s diet, and may help explain the disproportionate burden of obesity among low-income African-American children, and why and under what conditions changing the broader food environment can impact diet among low-income African American families. To date, we know very little about the interplay between these factors and the obesogenic neighborhood environment, especially for low-income African-American families. These findings will be critical to informing the ongoing policy discussion regarding food access and obesity among children, which is at the crux of RWJF’s attempts to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic by 2015.

Being part of New Connections provides me with a set of unique resources and support at this critical point in my early career and will aid in attaining my future career goals. New Connections events such as the Annual Research and Coaching Clinic and Symposium have afforded me a unique opportunity to gain insights on topics crucial to my career development, such as developing a strong publication record and practicing successful “grantsmanship.” As a New Connections Grantee through the Health Eating Research (HER) program, I have benefited from the efforts made by the national program office (NPO) to involve me in a community of grantees. Further, they have offered useful tools to support my research endeavors, such as technical assistance on a wide range of issues (e.g., communications support and media contact, journal article review, dissemination of research results). Yet, the aspect of New Connections that has had the greatest impact on my career is the mentoring support provided by the program, both to help me leverage new mentoring opportunities and to foster existing ones. These mentoring relationships with colleagues who are engaged in research to identify policies and environmental strategies to promote healthy eating and prevent obesity among children will be invaluable to my career development.

Research Interests

My main research interests include: (1) health disparities among vulnerable populations, including children; (2) the socioeconomic determinants of health; (3) health behaviors; (4) diet and diet-related diseases, including food insecurity; and (5) neighborhood effects on health.

The Details
  • New Connections Status: Junior Investigator
  • Award Year: 2013, Healthy Eating Research
  • RWJF Team/Portfolio: Childhood Obesity
  • Project Name: Assessing the Relative Impact of Home-Food and Local-Supermarket Environments on Children’s Diets in Low-Resource African American Neighborhoods

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