In a hospital room in Atlanta, Caree Cotwright discovered her passion. Her father, Ernest C. Jackson, Sr., lay dying with cancer, and Cotwright, just a few months after earning an undergraduate degree in biology, witnessed first-hand the frustrating “disconnect” between medical staff and patient.
Cotwright, then 23 years old, was convinced there was a better way to help people, one that involved both prevention and a holistic approach to treatment.
As she sat staring at a computer wondering what career path she should take, her mother walked by.
“You always liked nutrition,” she told her daughter.
“It was like a bell went off,” Cotwright said. “I was like ‘I did! I do!”
Not long after, Cotwright visited UGA and met graduate coordinator Mary Ann Johnson and then-faculty member Becky Mullis, who had just received a multi-million dollar grant to teach African-American elementary students in Atlanta about nutrition.
Cotwright, a product of the Atlanta public schools whose mother was a lifelong educator in the system, had found her home.
“We always called it divine intervention,” she said of her partnership with Mullis.
Cotwright threw herself into her role, and, harkening back to her roots in church plays, puppet shows, dance and theater, she soon found the niche that would define her early career: using the arts to teach inner city kids about nutrition.
For her master’s thesis, Cotwright wrote a play called “Lil’ Red Ridin’ Thru ’da Hood,” which also featured an original rap called “What’s Best 4 Me” about fruits and vegetables. Here’s a sample lyric:
“Gotta cut the fat so I can do my body good/so I keep eatin’ fruits and veggies like I know I should …
“I was using rap and dance and all kinds of things to get them excited about nutrition,” Cotwright said. “It was a natural fit. I loved what I was doing because I felt like I was doing prevention.”
The play later went on tour in Boston, Philadelphia and Atlanta, where it was funded by the Atlanta Falcons Youth Foundation.
Cotwright’s rap is now the theme song for a mobile produce market in Chicago that provides fresh food for people living in so-called “food deserts” that don’t have ready access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
During the program, Cotwright also learned about different research techniques, how to manage focus groups and build partnerships and how to write grants, all skills that would prove essential to her later in her career.
Cotwright went on to receive her Ph.D. from UGA and took a two-year post-doc W.K. Kellogg Health Scholar Fellowship at Morgan State University in Baltimore, where she introduced a new fictional character, a dog named Li’l Lexie, to teach preschoolers about nutrition and physical activity.
A three-year stint at the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta followed. While there, Cotwright communicated obesity prevention guidelines as part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Campaign.
She was hired as an assistant professor of foods and nutrition at FACS in August 2013.
“I was probably her first point of contact at UGA and I could tell there was something very special about Caree,” said Mary Ann Johnson, the Bill and June Flatt Professor in foods and nutrition. “I knew she was a real communicator and very passionate about everything she did, so it really didn’t surprise me that she’s turned into a remarkably creative researcher. She has this very good instinct of what will engage young people.”
Cotwright’s latest vision is to use puppet shows and a storybook curriculum for area childcare centers to reinforce the need for fresh fruits and vegetables.
She has already created a main character, “Freggie,” and is working on securing a real-life van she’ll call “Freggie’s Green Machine” that would deliver fresh fruits and vegetables to local childcare centers.
Her long-term goal is to see the project go national with a comprehensive farm-to-preschool component that includes developing preschool gardens.
Cotwright acknowledges that addressing the nation’s obesity crisis is a daunting one, but she is not discouraged. She looks into the eyes of her own little daughter, Camara, and she sees hope.
“Every little person counts,” she said. “That’s how you’ve got to look at it. It’s a big ocean, but every drop of rain counts.”
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