Progress, Hope, and Commitment

Feb 28, 2014, 10:55 AM, Posted by

Nearly seven years ago, this Foundation made a major commitment to reversing the nation’s childhood obesity epidemic. We had many reasons, but chief among them was the decades of data showing more and more young people in America facing greater challenges to growing up healthy. We, and many others, knew it was an unsustainable path. So we pledged $500 million to reverse the trend, and joined forces with a wide range of partners to address the many different facets that an effort of this magnitude would require. Big challenges require big commitments.

This week has been one of the most exciting in the last seven years. Research published Tuesday shows a major decline in the obesity rate among children ages 2 to 5 over the last eight years. This is a very real sign of progress, because we know that preventing obesity at an early age is likely to help children maintain a healthy weight into adulthood. The significant decline measured by researchers with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention follows progress we’ve started to see over the last 18 months.

Places that have taken a comprehensive approach to addressing this epidemic―destinations as varied as Philadelphia and Mississippi―are starting to measure declines in their obesity rates. Last summer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data showing obesity rates declining among young children from lower-income families. These early results, coupled with this week’s news, are taking us to a place we weren’t sure we’d see―one where a healthy environment is the norm. It’s evidence that the nationwide push to create a true culture of health for all children―regardless of where they live or how much money their families have―is taking hold and having an impact.

While these new data bring hope, so does other important news announced this week. Over the last several years, schools have been making tremendous changes to serve and sell healthier foods and beverages to students. Now we’re seeing additional efforts to ensure that anything marketed in school is just as healthy as what can be sold. For example, if a vending machine in the cafeteria stocks only healthy drinks, students will no longer see a sugar-sweetened soda bottle emblazoned across the front. This is the latest step in a process that began with the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, a powerful move toward creating healthier school environments.

Some of the nation’s leading out-of-school time providers also stepped forward this week. Thanks to commitments from the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and National Recreation and Park Association, millions more children will soon be served  healthier snacks and will get more time for physical activity in the hours between when school ends and when they go home. 

And in the near future, when families stop at the grocery store to get ingredients for dinner, they’ll notice more positive changes.  On February 27, the Food and Drug Administration proposed updating the Nutrition Facts panels you see on the back of boxes, bottles, and cans on store shelves. This would be the first major update in 20 years, with a new design aimed at providing critical information much more clearly. The week ended on another high note on Friday morning, with the announcement that low-income families receiving federal food assistance will receive a 30 percent increase in their monthly allowance to purchase fruits and vegetables for their children. 

Those updates illustrate an important principle: in order for people to make the healthy choice for themselves and their family, they need access to clear information and affordable, healthy options. 

All of these actions show what we can achieve when we work together. Granted, there is still a lot more work to be done to get all of America’s children to healthy weight. Our nation’s overall obesity rates are holding steady, and remain high. Hispanic youth and black youth continue to face higher obesity rates than their white and Asian peers. These disparities are unacceptable; we must redouble our efforts to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to good health.  

My hope is that this week’s news urges parents, children, policymakers, nonprofits, and business to continue focusing on getting and keeping kids healthy. It should spark even stronger collaborations, and deepen our entire nation’s commitment to building a culture of health that allows all Americans to lead healthier lives now, and for generations to come. 

Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, MBA, is president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation