Public health experts spotted the first signs of trouble in the 1980s. After hovering in the single digits for more than a generation, childhood obesity rates suddenly spiked—first doubling, then tripling, then even quadrupling among some age groups. By 2000, nearly one-third of children in the United States were obese or overweight. An epidemic had spiraled out of control.
Surgeon General David Satcher was among the first to sound the alarm, issuing a national call to action in 2001. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) began exploring the issue shortly thereafter, under the leadership of its new President and CEO, Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, MBA.
RWJF’s initial goals were modest: to understand the causes of the obesity epidemic and identify the most promising approaches to prevention. The Foundation also helped to raise the profile of the issue, sponsoring a national summit on obesity with Time Magazine and ABC News in June 2004.
In the years that followed, RWJF-sponsored research helped prove that causes of the epidemic were all around us: in our schools, neighborhoods and workplaces. Unhealthy foods had become increasingly available, less expensive and marketed in ever-larger portions. Meanwhile, schools had cut back on physical education or eliminated it altogether, and suburban sprawl favored car-centric development over the needs of pedestrians and bicyclists.
As a result of these and other changes, children started consuming more calories and burning fewer, creating a persistent “energy gap” that led to unhealthy weight gain. Research supported by RWJF estimated that the energy gap was manageable—a difference of only 110-165 calories per child per day across the population of young people in the United States had caused the spike in obesity rates during the 1980s and 1990s.
Informed by this research, Risa Lavizzo-Mourey made a bold announcement in April 2007: the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation would commit $500 million toward reversing the childhood obesity epidemic, with the goal of success by 2015.
The announcement was startling in its scope and ambition. It was the single largest commitment in RWJF’s history. The target it established was equally bold. Few public health leaders imagined that reversing the childhood obesity epidemic by 2015 was possible. Many aimed simply to halt the rise in obesity prevalence.
Lavizzo-Mourey’s vision helped mobilize parents, government officials, public health experts, industry leaders and many others. Her leadership brought disparate voices together and helped to create a genuine national movement to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic.
Among many other successful programs, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation supports:
- Healthy Eating Research, Active Living Research, Bridging the Gap and the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity to build the evidence base about the most successful strategies for preventing childhood obesity;
- The Healthy Schools Program and Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities to transform schools, neighborhoods and cities into healthy places to live, learn work and play.
- Communities Creating Healthy Environments, AACORN and Salud America! to eliminate disparities in access to healthy foods and safe places to play and explore effective strategies for preventing obesity in the communities most affected.
- The Partnership for a Healthier America and ChildObesity180 to mobilize industry support for obesity prevention and inspire corporate practices that support healthy living; and
- PreventObesity.net to serve as an online hub to connect leaders and supporters in the national movement and drive action to reverse the epidemic.
Since the Foundation announced its funding commitment five years ago, the nation has taken critical steps toward reversing the childhood obesity epidemic. Many high-profile leaders have taken up the cause: mayors and governors, entertainers and celebrity chefs, and even the First Lady of the United States.
We already have seen clear signs of progress. Obesity rates have plateaued, and there are encouraging signs that point to declines among some age groups. Cities and states that were among the first to enact comprehensive obesity-prevention programs are now reporting meaningful reductions in childhood obesity rates.
Today, there’s good reason to believe our nation will achieve the goal that seemed unimaginable a decade ago.
We can reverse the childhood obesity epidemic. And we will.
For her bold vision and willingness to tackle the toughest challenges to our nation’s health, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation salutes our President and CEO, Risa Lavizzo-Mourey.