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Kathy Hosig

Cabbage taste testing activity at Pleasants Elementary School in Petersburg, VA.

Five people, including four women and one man, posing behind a table piled high with fresh garden produce at caabbage taste testing activity at Pleasants Elementary School in Petersburg, VA.
Cabbage taste testing activity at Pleasants Elementary School in Petersburg, VA.

Kathy Hosig: Creating Community Connections

Kathy Hosig, associate professor of population health sciences and director of the Virginia Tech Center for Public Health Practice and Research (CPHPR), an Institute for Society, Culture and Environment (ISCE) center, has an infectious smile, boundless energy and a passion for working in communities.

As director of the CPHPR for the past ten years, she has been a prolific grant writer, playing a role in securing over $12 million to support numerous community-based projects focused on public health concerns including nutrition, physical activity, obesity, opioid use and substance misuse. She is also co-leader of the Community and Collaboration Core for Virginia Tech’s portion of a $22 million NIH Clinical Translational Science Award (CTSA), granted to the University of Virginia.

In addition to her multiple academic and center roles and responsibilities, Hosig manages to find time to work in local communities across Virginia, alongside colleagues from Virginia Cooperative Extension and other partners, including Virginia State University, community leaders and Virginia Tech students.

“I love going into communities and churches and seeing all the people involved in the programs and how they benefit. The positive energy makes it all worth it. I can drive from Blacksburg [VA] to Fredericksburg [VA] and back all in the same day to meet with program leaders and community members and then be jazzed all the way home,” said Hosig.

One of the projects that keeps Hosig energized is the Petersburg Healthy Options Partnership (PHOPs). This five-year project, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), aims to improve food systems and city infrastructure to foster healthier lifestyles for the Petersburg community, which was eligible for CDC funding due to the area’s high obesity rates.

“PHOPs has developed a number of initiatives to increase its residents’ access to healthy foods such as a farm-to-school partnership with the Petersburg Public School System that includes nutrition education and food tasting activities,” said Hosig. “We have also been working to extend the reach of the farmer’s markets through mobile markets and hope to increase opportunities for physical activity by improving the walkability and bike-ability of the city’s streets and sidewalks as well as enhancing local trails."

Unfortunately, some of Hosig’s projects have been on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, but not PHOPs. After Petersburg received CARES Act funding, PHOPs staff offered use of their refrigerator trucks intended for the mobile markets to the city so that they could deliver restaurant meals to residents in need. Now that the urgent need to provide meals due to the pandemic has passed, PHOPs is pivoting back to working with local farmers to develop a sustainable system to source local produce for mobile and satellite markets and Petersburg City Public Schools.

“The partnerships we formed delivering the restaurant meals really strengthened our relationships with the local food pantries and churches. We have helped them and now they are more open to the work we are meant to do through policy change and increasing access to healthy foods,” said Hosig.

This collaborative spirit is one of the primary reasons for PHOP’s success in Petersburg. Hosig and colleagues have established numerous partnerships in the community including with the Crater Health District, the River Street Market, the Harding St. Urban Ag Center, Friends of the Lower Appomattox River, and the Petersburg Public Library’s Healthy Living and Learning Center.

When asked what she hopes to achieve in communities like Petersburg, Hosig remarked, “I really like seeing the development of new connections to partners and resources. When the communities establish these partnerships with other agencies and resources, it helps them to make a difference in their own communities [separate from the grant-funded projects].”

Another effort that Hosig has been instrumental in developing is Empowering Healthy Families, a five-year randomized control trial funded by the USDA to deliver the Healthy Children Healthy Families and Money Smart curricula in church congregations throughout the state of Virginia. A key element of the project is its strong partnerships with the Baptist General Convention of Virginia, a statewide association of Black churches (BGCVA), Virginia State University and Cooperative Extension.  The focus on childhood obesity prevention for families with young children, with a financial management curriculum as the control condition for the trial, were determined through community-based participatory research with BGCVA for over 11 years, starting with an NIH-funded randomized control trial for community-based type 2 diabetes lifestyle education.

Hosig has also been working to address the opioid epidemic, which has hit many rural communities in Virginia especially hard. Using the CPHPR’s connections with Virginia Cooperative Extension, she and her colleagues have been able to secure more than $3.8 million through five grants from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) over the past four years.

These projects provide a range of support for local communities such as implementing substance misuse prevention curricula in public schools, developing materials and messages for regional campaigns to reduce stigma related to addiction, evaluating community-based programs being implemented by Cooperative Extension agents or providing technical assistance.

“What’s amazing in the last five years is that federal agencies have realized that as a land-grant university, we [Virginia Tech] have [Cooperative] Extension and can get to all these rural communities. We know our communities and it’s a great marriage to tie together funding with the needs within these communities,” said Hosig.

Because of the reach that land-grant universities have in rural areas, the CDC has offered all land-grant institutions across the U.S. approximately $25,000 to help address vaccine hesitancy related to the recent coronavirus pandemic. The CDC anticipates funding 20 of the 111 land-grant institutions nationwide to receive an additional $200,000 to expand their vaccine hesitancy work. Hosig is very excited about this opportunity and plans to take the lead on a proposal from Virginia Tech.

“We plan to include our partnerships with Virginia State University and the iTHRIV project through UVA for this proposal. We will build on the infrastructure we already have in place and hope it will foster a long-term relationship for funding from the CDC.”

Hosig also enjoys cultivating a love of working with communities in the students she helps to train. Many of the Master of Public Health students at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine have had placements with the CPHPR over the past ten years. The center offers them the ability to apply what they have learned in class and gain real-world experience. Many of the students have interests in health disparities and are excited to work in local communities where they hope to make a difference.

“The community partners love having the students, too,” said Hosig. “They, in turn, feel like they are helping to teach the students.”

When asked to reflect on her work over the past few years as well as consider what is on the horizon, Hosig remarked, “The ISCE funding has really positioned us [the CPHPR] to make these connections between public health and Cooperative Extension. It has enabled me to do what I love. It’s been a magical thing – how our work has become intertwined and connected over the past five years, and how that’s been to the benefit of many communities in Virginia.”