Pilot Grants Awarded for Interdisciplinary Childhood Obesity Projects

Drawing on cross-Harvard expertise in childhood obesity, Harvard Catalyst | The Harvard Clinical and Translational Science Center has awarded two $50,000 one-year pilot grants to two researchers dedicated to understanding the complexities of childhood obesity. Steven Gortmaker, professor of the practice of health sociology at Harvard School of Public Health, will develop, validate, and pilot novel wireless tools to assess physical activity, dietary intake, and weight in children. Working with co-investigators Amna Afzal of Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and Elsie Taveras of Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare and Boston Children’s Hospital, Gortmaker will leverage the availability of new and inexpensive wireless technology as aids in calculating energy intake and expenditure in children. His study will mine data never before collected in a pediatric population, providing insights into the energy balance of a cohort of children.

Focusing on the role school and municipal facilities can play in preventing childhood obesity, the second grant was awarded to Harvard Law School’s Robert Greenwald, who is working with co-investigators Emily Broad Leib of Harvard Law School (HLS), Angie Cradock of HSPH, and Lea Susan Ojamaa of Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Greenwald’s project will address the current legal barriers to using school facilities for after-school physical activities and other programs aimed at preventing childhood obesity, particularly in communities with limited resources. The project will develop legal guidance and training around best practices in creating joint use agreements that would enable communities to use municipal facilities during non-school hours.

Greenwald, director of the Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation at HLS, says he is excited to work on such a collaborative effort with HSPH and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. “The project will allow us to work in several Massachusetts communities to develop joint use agreements that will support physical activity for children in their school facilities. Ultimately, we will develop a toolkit and training that promotes such agreements and supports physical activity for children statewide,” says Greenwald. The project team will inaugurate its work by meeting with diverse stakeholders, then targeting three communities to form agreements. This process will inform the creation of a legal “toolkit” and training guide that can be used for any community in Massachusetts in partnership with Mass in Motion.

Co-investigator Emily Broad Leib says that the goal of the study is for schools and municipalities to open their doors to after-school and summer activities to help increase physical activity and reduce the rates of childhood obesity. “Children and families living in the poorest communities suffer disproportionately from childhood obesity, often due to a lack of access to healthy foods and limited options for safe, available locations where they can participate in physical activity,” she says.

“Our goal for this pilot is to develop interdisciplinary teams, taking advantage of the many schools and departments within the University that can bring their ideas and expertise together to help solve this challenging problem,” noted Charles Deutsch, deputy director of Harvard Catalyst’s Community Health Innovation and Research Program (CHIRP).

Since 2008, Harvard Catalyst has awarded [pilot funding to investigators who are developing novel approaches and research models to address health challenges such as cancer disparities and child health. In April 2012, Harvard Catalyst’s CHIRP convened researchers from across Harvard University around the topic of childhood obesity, creating this initial funding opportunity. A new opportunity for pilot funding will be made available for researchers in early January.