Vanessa Casanova, PhD

Vanessa Casanova, PhD

Creating Healthier, More Equitable Communities by Logging Weight Loss

In order for communities to win, they first have to lose. Weight, that is.

The Texas-sized version of “The Biggest Loser,” Fit City Tyler is a community wellness coalition that hosts a regional weight loss challenge throughout East Texas. The coalition started in 2010 as a result of County Health Rankings data showing that the region had high rates of obesity and resulting chronic diseases.

The weight loss challenge, Lighten Up East Texas, encourages individuals to register in teams, including workplace teams. This strategy has improved success rates in the past and allows for friendly competition.

With a background in social sciences, labor studies, and public health, Vanessa Casanova, Assistant Professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler, saw potential for this program to include an evaluation component.

“There was no way to tell what kind of support workplaces offer participants,” explains Vanessa. “I wanted to get to the bottom of this and analyze who was participating — and, more importantly, who wasn’t participating at the individual level. At the community level, what types of workplaces are participating; do small-scale employers participate as much as large corporations?”

To this end, Vanessa is spending the first year of her New Connections grant characterizing participating Lighten Up East Texas employers by sector, business size, employment category, and job classification. She hopes her analysis will reveal gaps in employer participation, as well as inspire strategies to support those employers that are missing.

“I want to know which workplaces are encouraging their employees to maintain healthy lifestyles, whether it’s through this weight loss initiative, or simply encouraging employees to step away from their desk and do something physical for a few minutes,” Vanessa explains.

Taking it one step further, Vanessa will then identify gaps in program participation and completion within participating workplaces. Often, even employers who are supportive of such efforts fail to reach all of their employees with these health messages.

“Many of us receive wellness messages through work emails,” Vanessa states. “But a lot of workers don’t have ready access to email; whether it’s the housekeeping or cafeteria staff here on campus, or loggers or fishermen who work outside. The messages don’t always get to people who need them most.”

Apart from her New Connections grant, Vanessa honors her multi-disciplinary graduate education in rural sociology, geography, and social forestry by researching safety climate on logging sites across Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana on behalf of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

“A big part of integrating workplace health with safety is stepping back and looking at what kind of Culture of Health and safety exist in a worksite,” she explains. “Do people feel comfortable reporting something that’s unsafe? How does being morbidly obese affect the safety of a worker and others at their jobsite? How do you get older farmers, ranchers, and loggers to change their behaviors when it comes to health and safety?”

Ultimately, Vanessa hopes her work will create healthier, more equitable communities by engaging workers who have been left out of the workplace safety/health conversation.

Recent Publications

  • Arcury, T., Gabbard, S., Bell, B., Casanova, V., Flocks, J., Swanberg, J., & Wigging, M. (2015). Collecting comparative data on farmworker housing and health: A tool for collecting housing and health data across places and time. New Solutions: A Journal of Environmental and Occupational Health Policy.
  • Grzywacz, J., Lipscomb, H., Casanova, V., Neis, B., Fraser, C., Monaghan, P., & Vallejos, Q. (2013). Organization of work in agricultural, forestry and fishing sector in the US Southeast: Implications for immigrant workers’ occupational safety and health. American Journal of Industrial Medicine.
  • Duffy, P., Irimia-Vladu, M., Cashwell, S., Bartowski, J., Molnar, J., & Casanova, V. (2006). Food pantries and the populations they serve: Strange bedfellows or strategic partners? Sociological Inquiry, 76(4), 476–502.
  • Cashwell, S., Bartowski, J. P., Duffy, P., Casanova, V., Molnar, J., & Irimia-Vladu, M. (2004). Private food assistance in the Deep South: Assessing agency directors’ knowledge of charitable choice. Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, 31(2), 157–177.


Fostering Cross-Sector Collaboration to Improve Well-Being

Making Health a Shared Value

Creating Healthier, More Equitable Communities

Strengthening Integration of Health Services and Systems