Partners in Public Health

Associate Professor Christine Bozlak, second from right, talks with colleagues from the Alliance of New York State YMCA's. Photo by Patrick Dodson.

ALBANY, N.Y. (Feb. 21, 2019) – YMCAs throughout New York are developing programs to combat childhood obesity and improve resources for breastfeeding mothers, thanks to an ongoing partnership with a School of Public Health professor.

Since 2012, Christine Bozlak, associate professor of Health Policy, Management and Behavior, has collaborated with the Alliance of New York State YMCAs, a nonprofit organization that represents and advocates on behalf of the 38 individually incorporated YMCAs in New York. Each project built upon the one prior, and Bozlak is now the recipient of a $20,000 grant to take the work another step further.

When the Alliance first received a grant through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to help local YMCAs tackle childhood obesity in 2013, Executive Director Kyle Stewart turned to Bozlak. Together their team worked to promote healthier vending machine options and Healthy Eating and Physical Activity (HEPA) standards for childcare programs in all of the YMCAs in New York.

As part of this effort, Bozlak secured a Faculty Research Award to analyze the YMCAs’ readiness and willingness to implement childhood obesity prevention-related initiatives. Bozlak found that while the branches saw success in healthier eating and engaging children in physical activity, more could be accomplished in all areas — especially in supporting breastfeeding mothers.

Bozlak offered the example of a mother supervising her child swimming, but who also has a nursing infant. “Mothers run into situations where they need to nurse, but there’s no practical and private way to do so,” she said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for every month a child is breastfed, their risk of being overweight decreases, a point Bozlak stresses. “Although it is still being determined exactly how breastfeeding contributes to a decreased risk of childhood obesity, the evidence suggests that breastfeeding is a protective factor for childhood obesity and many other childhood conditions and diseases.”

The New York State YMCA Foundation, a 501(c)(3) that shares a management agreement with the Alliance to provide staffing and other support, used Bozlak’s analysis to help secure state funding to further the work and again the team turned to Bozlak and her then-graduate assistant, Shea Kelly. The partnership projects continued and, in total, the Foundation has secured $1.7 million in legislative grants since 2015. Funds have been used to purchase items such as refrigerators to store healthier foods, to implement physical activity curriculum and more, but a primary focus remains on supporting breastfeeding mothers.

When the Alliance began planning for its 2019 HEPA standards initiative, they asked Bozlak to help them better understand how to equip YMCAs with resources and policies that support breastfeeding mothers and staff, while simultaneously demonstrating a continued commitment to their infant feeding standards.

This fall, the Foundation granted Bozlak $20,000 to conduct a pilot research study to determine how to help YMCAs implement the HEPA infant feeding standard that includes breastfeeding. The 18-month project, which kicked off in January, will use data from the previous studies and look at practices used elsewhere to create interventions for a sample of five YMCA Associations in NY. Five additional YMCAs will serve as a control group and will receive no intervention.

“This could include anything from training for staff and managers about how to support breastfeeding moms to resources to help YMCAs create physical space, such as lactation rooms,” said Bozlak.

“From the first time I met Dr. Bozlak, I have been impressed with her knowledge and experience in health policy,” said Stewart. “That expertise, combined with her research skills and support of the YMCA’s mission, made it a very easy decision for us to partner with her on these important projects.”

Bozlak noted she’s glad to be working with the Alliance– and with Kelly, who was hired by the Alliance upon her graduation from UAlbany and worked with them up until this month.

“By partnering with the Alliance we can have a much greater impact than by partnering with YMCA branches individually,” said Bozlak. “It’s also a pleasure to have had the chance to work with a former student who has launched a successful public health career.”

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