A warm evening of South Texas mariachi music, food and hospitality greeted the participants at the opening reception of the third national Minority Serving Institutions Research Partnerships (MSIRP) Conference hosted by The University of Texas-Pan American Feb. 1-4.
In her welcome at the reception, following a day that included a pre-conference U.S. Army Technical Assistance Workshop, UTPA President Dr. Blandina Cárdenas described the strong values of family, hard work, intellectual development, and patriotism of the people in South Texas.
"It is therefore all together fitting and proper that on this evening we join together with our partners in the federal government, with institutions from across the nation and with corporate partners for the development of capacity in the field of research so that research may be informed by the broadest array of experiences of the American people," she said, expressing confidence in their ability to meet the nation's future research and knowledge development needs.
The value of partnerships in helping solve problems and meeting the nation's current and future needs was a primary message of both Cárdenas and Roberto Salazar, administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), who also addressed the more than 200 guests at the conference's opening event. Conference participants include representatives from academic institutions including HSIs, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), major corporations, federal government agencies, small businesses and university students.
As the highest ranking Hispanic official in FNS history, Salazar oversees a $60 million budget that provides 15 different domestic nutrition assistance programs for the public including Food Stamps, National School Lunch and School Breakfast, Child and Adult Care Food, and the Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), among others.
Salazar described some of the recent initiatives taken by his agency in addressing health and health disparities in the United States, including partnering with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2005 to update dietary guidelines for Americans resulting in the new food guide pyramid found at www.mypryamid.gov. Web sites directed to children and Latinos, who have increased numbers considered overweight, obese and developing diabetes than the general population, have also been developed.
"We were able to do that (the Latino Web site) with a great partnership - the partnership of Miami Dade College. It was with their partnership - the research institution and the academic institution - that we were able to reach all of America with the launch of this tool," Salazar said. "It is imperative that we build these partnerships and we develop the research that supports the solutions to these issues."
"We have been reaching out more aggressively this past year...using our grant programs to partner with local organizations to reach people least served by our programs. We will continue to find ways to partner by making funds available to test and create new ideas," he said.
Since his department is focused on improving the nutritional habits of Americans, particularly the Latino community in terms of its higher rates of overweight and obese individuals, Salazar said the FNS would be most interested in research that would increase the understanding of dietary habits and solutions to change those dietary habits.
When asked what he hoped would be the conference's greatest accomplishment, Salazar cited the new synergies created by the sharing of information - both successes and failures - by the participants, which usually results in thinking "outside the box," leading to the creation of new opportunities and solutions.
"Open the door to each other about what you are doing, about what you are achieving, and share that information because that is where you'll get the most out of this conference," he said.