All Children Deserve to Grow Up at a Healthy Weight

Feb 8, 2016, 9:15 AM, Posted by

A year since RWJF committed $500 million toward reversing childhood obesity, early signs of progress show us that cross-sector partnerships and access to healthier options are key steps to ensure all children have opportunities to grow up at a healthy weight.

Students get ready to run in a game at school during recess.

One year ago, I traveled to New York City to announce that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation would commit $500 million toward the goal of helping all children grow up at a healthy weight by 2025, bringing our total investment on this issue to more than $1 billion.

The gym at West Side High was packed and brimming with excitement on announcement day. We cheered early signs of progress in places like Philadelphia, New York City and rural North Carolina, but all of us knew the job wasn’t done. Even in places reporting good news, progress usually wasn’t reaching low income families and communities of color equitably. Everyone agreed we had to push harder, both to accelerate the pace of progress and ensure that its benefits reached all our children.

Now it’s one year later, and I’m pleased to report that the optimism we felt proved justified.

Nationally, research shows that school lunches have improved, and both students and parents support the healthy changes. Physical education is now due for a major upgrade, thanks to new funding sources in the just-passed education law that replaced “No Child Left Behind.”

The latest numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s NHANES study confirm that we are on the right track. Obesity rates are down five percentage points among our youngest children and are holding steady among other age groups. 

What’s more, cities and counties that prioritized children’s health are reaping big results. In the past year, Cherokee County, South Carolina; St. Cloud, Minnesota; and several communities in Southern California have reported significant declines in childhood obesity. The precise numbers vary by place and age group, but all the results are impressive. For example, among third graders in Cherokee County, combined obesity and overweight rates dropped more than ten percentage points over a three-year period—an amazing achievement!

Each community reporting signs of progress developed a unique strategy tailored to local needs, but all approaches shared a central focus: increasing access to healthier options and encouraging parents and children to take advantage of healthy resources. For example, communities are making it safer and easier for children to walk to school, creating incentives to bring supermarkets to underserved areas, highlighting healthier options on restaurant menus, and serving healthier beverages to young children in schools and in child care settings.

Looking forward, we plan to focus especially hard on creating healthy environments for our youngest kids, promoting health equity and ensuring that progress reaches all our children. We will continue to defend and promote the recently enacted policies that are making our schools healthier places, and we will release new research showing how those changes are making a big difference.

We also expect to see some exciting new initiatives during the next several months. Watch this space for the latest news about innovative strategies to reduce kids’ consumption of sugary drinks, promote physical activity throughout the day, and expand access to healthy food in the underserved communities often called “food deserts.”

We are helping to develop these strategies right now, in collaboration with many leaders in the field. These close partnerships are critical to achieving our shared goals. We all have a role to play in helping children grow up at a healthy weight: foundations like RWJF, community organizations, civic leaders, elected officials, and perhaps most important, parents and young people themselves.

There is one special ally and friend I want to recognize at this unique moment in our movement’s history: First Lady Michelle Obama.

When Mrs. Obama adopted this cause nearly eight years ago, it brought unprecedented attention to children’s health. She created Let’sMove, set the bold goal of eliminating childhood obesity within a generation, and brought many important new allies into the field.

I am immeasurably grateful to her and to all our partners working to create a brighter future for our children.

If we continue to work together, I am confident that early signs of progress will grow into an unstoppable wave, benefitting all our children. As a result, longstanding health disparities will be reduced or eliminated. And every child—no matter who they are or where they live—will have the opportunity to grow up at a healthy weight.

Do you have suggestions on how we can accelerate the pace of progress or success stories from your community we should know about? Please share your ideas in the comments below.

Risa Lavizzo-Mourey

Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, MBA, is president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a position she has held since 2003. Under her leadership, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has researched, evaluated, and implemented transformative programs tackling the nation’s most pressing health issues. 
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