“I want schools to be health-promoting places, where children have access to healthy foods and opportunities to be active.”
Helping Schools Become Health-Promoting Environments
Finding her calling wasn’t a straightforward process. Erin began her career pursuing a Ph.D. in biochemistry. When she realized that wasn’t for her, she got into breast cancer research. That wasn’t the right path for her either; as she explains, “I wanted to be connected with the community.” Finally, she hit upon the right line of research with pediatric obesity prevention. She became captivated with the idea of schools as a vehicle for helping kids become healthy and active.
“Kids spend so much time in school, yet many of them don’t have access to healthy foods or physical activity while they’re there,” she explains.
Erin began working with schools as a co-investigator on the Challenge! in Schools project in 2009, soon after starting as an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine under the mentorship of Challenge! in Schools’ principal investigator, Dr. Maureen Black. In this capacity, she got to work with schools in the Baltimore community where she was raised.
During this time, Erin started her New Connections/Active Living Research grant. As she explains, “I was interested in figuring out which parts of school environments were health-promoting. I realized that kids who walked to school, for example, were more connected to their immediate surroundings. This promoted a healthier lifestyle for them.”
In 2012, Erin’s focus on school wellness began expanding, as she led the Maryland Wellness Policies and Practices Project, or MWPPP. The project seeks to enhance healthy eating and physical activity opportunities in Maryland schools by helping them create and implement comprehensive wellness policies. Now, Erin leads multiple wellness promotion studies focused on schools throughout Maryland, where she studies whether wellness policies and policy implementation affect child health and academic outcomes.
Envisioning Leavy Greens in Children’s Futures
For Erin, growing up in a resource-limited community helped shed light on health issues that low-income families face on a daily basis. For instance, she never learned how to ride a bike or swim.
“My family struggled with physical activity access,” she explains. “But I’m grateful for my upbringing, because now I have a better understanding of what families need in order to be healthy.”
A Baltimore native, Erin has always been interested in child health issues in Maryland, but now she wants to focus on spreading childhood wellness initiatives to communities all over the United States. As she says, “I want to see how these efforts can expand to other states and environments and see if the successes that we have had here in Maryland can be implemented elsewhere.”
Today, Erin is working with a large USDA grant to continue implementing wellness policies for more populations across the country, so that every child has the opportunity to be active and have access to healthier foods.
New Connections: Where Stars Aligned
At the time Erin received her New Connections grant, a lot of great things were happening. In addition to having just started her faculty position at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, she received her first grant through New Connections — and then Michelle Obama announced her “Let’s Move!” initiative to prevent childhood obesity. “The timing for my New Connections grant couldn’t have worked out more perfectly,” Erin attests.
Erin further explains that “New Connections provided me with the mentoring and guidance that I never received in graduate school. I felt like I won the lottery, the stars aligned so perfectly. I can’t say enough about my involvement with the larger New Connections program.”
Seven years later, Erin is still very involved with the program. She has coauthored many papers with people she has met through the program, and loves being a part of a diverse group of people who all have something in common.
Title: Associate, the University of Maryland School of Medicine
New Connections Year: 2009
New Connections Status: Past Awardee
Hager, E. R., Calamaro, C. J., Bentley, L. M., Hurley, K. M., Wang, Y., & Black, M. M. (July 22, 2016). Nighttime sleep duration and sleep behaviors among toddlers from low-income families: Associations with obesogenic behaviors and obesity and the role of parenting. Childhood Obesity. [Epub ahead of print].
Hager, E. R., Gormely, C., Latta, L. W., Treuth, M. S., Caulfield, L. E., & Black, M. M. (September 6, 2016). Toddler physical activity study: Laboratory and community studies to evaluate accelerometer validity and correlates. BMC Public Health, 16(936).
Hager, E. R., Cockerham, A., O’Reilly, N., Harrington, D., Harding, J., Hurley, K. M., & Black, M. M. (September 22, 2016). Food swamps and food deserts in Baltimore City, MD: Associations with dietary behaviors among urban adolescent girls. Public Health Nutrition, 1–10. [Epub ahead of print].
Hager, E. R., Rubio, D. S., Eidel, G. S., Penniston, E. S., Lopes, M., Saksvig, B. I., Fox, R., & Black, M. M. (October 2016). School-level implementation of local wellness policies, Maryland 2012-2013: Role of school systems, school health councils, and health disparities using a systems perspective. Journal of School Health, 86(10), 742–50.