Campus & Community

$5 million Pritzker gift to fund potential solutions for childhood obesity

4 min read

Gift includes scholarships for HSPH students and new professorship in related fields

To address the national and global epidemic of childhood obesity, Harvard College alumna Penny Pritzker ’81 and her husband, Bryan Traubert, have pledged $5 million to Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) to fund the nationwide application of a childhood exercise and nutrition program that has been piloted by HSPH and the YMCA.

The gift will underpin a scholarship fund for HSPH students pursuing obesity-related studies in several disciplines and will also establish an endowment to support a new permanent junior professorship at HSPH in obesity-related research.

The three-pronged effort, to be called The Donald and Sue Pritzker Nutrition and Fitness Initiative, will be directed by HSPH faculty members Steven Gortmaker, professor of the practice of health sociology in the Department of Society, Human Development and Health, and Frank Hu, associate professor in the departments of Nutrition and Epidemiology. The initiative is named in honor of Pritzker’s parents.

The gift from Pritzker and Traubert, who is a member of HSPH’s Visiting Committee, will emphasize an effort to address childhood obesity in urban poor and minority communities. A portion will be used to fund an innovative research project being conducted with the nation’s YMCAs to determine if an after-school program based on HSPH’s Planet Health curriculum yields significant, measurable improvements in diet, physical activity, and reduced obesity for children.

The YMCA research project, led by Gortmaker and Jean Wiecha, a senior research scientist at HSPH, will measure the effectiveness of the after-school program in a wide variety of YMCA after-school sites over the next three years, compared with a similar-sized control group of children at sites not participating in the program.

HSPH has been a partner and adviser to an ongoing national YMCA effort to create breakthrough approaches to health and wellness for youth, adults, and families.

The professorship endowment will enable the School to recruit an exceptional faculty member at the assistant or associate professor level who has a strong interest in pursuing innovative ways to slow and reverse the increase of childhood overweight and metabolic syndrome in the United States and globally.

As a permanent endowment for the School, this portion of the gift can be used to support a junior faculty member for three or more years as he or she is embarking on a career, and then be transferred to another exceptional junior faculty member, supporting his/her early work in the childhood and adult obesity field. Over time, the gift will seed the field with young faculty from a wide variety of disciplines – from laboratory science to nutrition to social and behavioral sciences and epidemiology and biostatistics – whose work is addressing the obesity problem.

The scholarship fund is a five-year commitment to provide a total of $1 million for students who are pursuing studies in several disciplines at HSPH that can be brought to bear on the problem of childhood and adult overweight, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome.

Said HSPH Dean Barry R. Bloom: “The childhood obesity problem in the U.S. is truly a growing epidemic, particularly among minorities and the socioeconomically disadvantaged whom YMCAs serve in significant numbers. We at Harvard are enormously gratified by Penny and Bryan’s strong commitment to partnering with us in this effort. I believe together we will learn and develop creative approaches that will achieve something truly important and lasting through the HSPH-YMCA project, and we hope it will inspire brilliant, committed students and faculty to pursue this major problem.”

“Dean Bloom and Professor Gortmaker will lead an effort to determine if after-school intervention is effective and to support young professors and students who will be tomorrow’s leaders in this fight,” said Pritzker, who is chairman of her 25th Class Reunion Giving From Harvard College.

Pritzker is chairman of Classic Residence by Hyatt, president of the Pritzker Realty Group, and also on the Board of Overseers at Harvard.

“Penny and I believe the Harvard School of Public Health initiative can make an impact on this complicated and troubling health issue,” said Traubert, who is an ophthalmologist.