In the middle of making an omelet, eggs already cracked, the power on the mobile food cart went out.
Luuly Nguyen was not flustered.
In a room full of senior citizens fresh off a hotly contested round of Bingo at the Athens Community Council on Aging, Nguyen carried on, unbothered by the hiccup.
She took questions from the audience, 20 or so folks assembled in clusters, about the health benefits of calcium and the cholesterol content found in the lukewarm eggs before her.
“Moderation is key,” she told them.
Her presentation concluding, Nguyen retreated to a back kitchen and quietly finished the meal, delivering a performance – and a spinach and egg omelet – worthy of applause.
When told of the malfunctions and Nguyen’s flawless response, Caree Cotwright, Nguyen’s instructor and an assistant professor in the FACS department of foods and nutrition, just smiled and nodded.
“The No. 1 rule of community nutrition is to be flexible,” she said.
Cotwright would know.
She has spent the better part of her young career engaged in outreach efforts aimed largely at curbing childhood obesity in little places like Monroe, Madison and all throughout Athens, and she’s training the next generation of researchers, teachers and dietitians to do the same.
Food demonstrations like the one Nguyen hosted at ACCA as a requirement of Cotwright’s nutrition education methods service-learning class are a big part of it, but so is theater, rapping, dancing, dressing up like a carrot or a kiwi or a pear or even as a charismatic, fruit and vegetable-loving frog named Freggie.
Cotwright’s students have appeared as Freggie – and as singing, dancing, life-sized fruits and vegetables known as “Freggie’s Friends” – in Head Start classes scattered about the Athens area for the last three years to promote healthy eating.
“I simply want to be known as the lady who gets kids to eat their fruits and vegetables,” Cotwright said. “Whatever it is, if it’s a cooking cart demo, if it’s Freggie, if it’s me rapping, I’m going to make it fun and interesting and I’m going to meet you where you are.”
A sample lyric, performed to the tune of “ABC” by The Jackson 5:
So yummy and so crunchy
Full of fiber and Vitamin C
Broccoli, broccoli for you and me!
“She’s like the most enthusiastic person ever,” said recent graduate Dorothy Dupree, who spent a healthy portion of her time as a grad student in a fruit costume. “The one thing she has made me realize is you can teach nutrition in a variety of ways and that it can be interactive and fun, especially with young people.”
Cotwright’s passion, so evident in her classes and interactions with the community, is rooted in a heart for the hurting and hungry.
In her early days as a researcher, she recalls volunteering at a local food bank on a food distribution day. The parking lot of the church was full of cars of folks needing food, and the line snaked down the street – right here in Athens.
“I was just overwhelmed,” Cotwright said. “I knew the need was great, but until you see it, you don’t really know. We’re so blessed, and until you go without, you don’t necessarily understand that.”
The plague of hunger speaks to a troubling trend in what Cotwright calls the “war on wellness,” one she sees as a major obstacle in the low-income communities her efforts often target.
“I’m trying to tell you to eat healthy, but then I hear parents tell me ‘I give my children chips every day after school because I can afford 50 cents but I can’t afford to buy a bag of apples or other fresh fruit,’ ” she said. “They just want their child’s tummy full and they’re going to try to get cheap foods that make them full. That’s what touches my heart. I have to be really creative in terms of problem solving.”
Besides the school performances, one of Cotwright’s grand dreams is securing funding for “Freggie’s Green Machine,” a food truck that would deliver fresh fruits and vegetables to communities without access to them.
“My vision is to see kids chase the fruit and veggie truck the way they chase the ice cream truck,” she said.
Cotwright, the mother of two little girls herself, primarily targets preschool children in her research and outreach efforts. She sees this generation as critical in correcting the current “trajectory toward poor health.”
“Overweight children become overweight adults and we’ve just perpetuated the problem,” she said. “So we can start to use children as change agents to change families and their behaviors. I think if we do that we’ll have healthy generations to come, and that’s my role, to leave the world a better place.”
To that point, she sees progress, pointing to statistics showing steady decreases in the rates of childhood obesity in Georgia.
She attributes the decline to a team effort, from legislation to research-based interventions and programs like Georgia Shape (Georgia Student Health and Physical Education), a multi-agency initiative launched in 2012 targeting the problem.
She also recognizes the role of policy in promoting health and is currently conducting a statewide study funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to examine the degree of beverage policy implementation among child care providers in Georgia.
“Implementation of policies can increase sustainable change long after programs have ended,” she said.
Cotwright has worked feverishly to build her own network – she calls it “pounding the pavement” – in the Athens community, forging relationships with schools and non-profits like the Northeast Georgia Food Bank, which serves 14 counties in northeast Georgia.
“We have all these people working on the problem,” Cotwright said. “If you hit a problem at a lot of different angles, you can make a difference, and I think that’s what’s happening.”
“You can tell she’s very passionate, but she’s also very compassionate,” said Bee Gee Elder, child nutrition manager of the Northeast Georgia Food Bank. “The very first time I met her, she gave me a hug – she said she was so excited to be working with us. Her face just lights up when she talks about the work she does.”
Last year, Cotwright was invited to speak at the TEDxUGA event, created to promote “ideas worth sharing” among faculty and students.
She opened her talk with a quote attributed to Hippocrates, known as the father of modern medicine: “A wise man should consider that health is the greatest of human blessings.”
Without health, Cotwright added, “we really don’t have anything.”
It’s that thought, and the hope and promise she sees in the next generation, that reminds her the pursuit is worth the effort, even when the power goes out and when discouragement creeps in.
“If we can maintain that valuable resource, health, we just might have a better world,” Cotwright said. “This is my little way of doing it.”
Department of Foods and Nutrition
B.S., Biology, Howard University, 1999
M.S., Nutrition, University of Georgia, 2004
Ph.D., Nutrition, University of Georgia, 2008
At UGA: Since 2013
Notable: Cotwright was named to Georgia Trend Magazine’s “40 Under 40” list in 2016 … recipient of the Sweaney Innovation Fund within FACS to fund the purchase of a mobile food cart to deliver nutrition education via cooking demonstrations in the community … received $190,000 from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Healthy Eating Research Grant to examine the degree of implementation of healthy beverage policies in child care programs in Georgia
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