Developing effective ways for young children to form healthy eating habits and maintain optimal weight poses challenges to researchers across the spectrum, from clinical care to public health. To advance efforts in this area, Harvard Catalyst recently awarded funding for two projects which engage community partners to promote the update of practical solutions that leverage existing policies and programs.
Childhood obesity disproportionately impacts economically disadvantaged children, which makes it crucial for interventions to start early. Early childhood is a critical time for children to adopt strong nutritional practices, engage in physical activity, and create other healthy habits. To this end, this pilot funding opportunity, which was offered by our Community Engagement Program, sought innovative proposals that could augment that uptake of existing guidelines and policies.
“Early childhood is a critical time for children to adopt strong nutritional practices, engage in physical activity, and create other healthy habits.”
The first project, a collaborative effort, will be working with city agencies in Boston and Cambridge to investigate the role that preschools and childcare centers play in obesity prevention efforts. Led by Erica Kenney, an assistant professor in the nutrition department at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (HSPH) and Caroline Dunn, research associate in the Department of Health and Policy Management also at the Chan School, will focus on these centers, where the average child spends more than 30 hours per week.
In partnership with the Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC), Kenney and Dunn will determine the most effective ways childcare centers and preschools can adopt policies that support nutritious eating in Boston. They will also work with the Cambridge Public Health Department to evaluate the impact of the city’s wellness policy “Cambridge in Motion’s Nutrition and Physical Activity,” on local childcare providers. Kenney and Dunn received $125,000 in pilot funding to support their joint project.
The second project, which received $75,000 in funding, will focus on developing strategies to increase the use of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. WIC provides food assistance, nutrition education, and health service referrals to low-income women and 3.7 million children under the age of five in the U.S., more than half of whom are infants. Eric Rimm, professor in the departments of Nutrition and Epidemiology at the Chan School, will investigate why eligible families (those that include two- to four-year-old children) are least likely to participate in WIC. His investigation, in collaboration with WIC partners, will include an analysis of four years of the program’s redemption and retention data in Massachusetts.
Launching these one-year projects will allow these experts in childhood healthy weight to advance not only their own established research, but to also strengthen the utility and viability of existing programs, and the relationships with community partners who are committed to ensuring children have the support they need to stay healthy.