What can $1 billion do to prevent childhood obesity?

Students at Monroe Elementary School learn to grow and prepare healthy meals in the school's garden club with some of the food going to the school's lunch program. Photo by REUTERS/Rick Wilking.

Students at Monroe Elementary School learn to grow and prepare healthy meals in the school’s garden club with some of the food going to the school’s lunch program. Photo by REUTERS/Rick Wilking.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is committing $500 million to spend over the next ten years on programs stopping childhood obesity. This is in addition to the $500 million they committed in 2007. Obesity rates have dropped from 14 percent to 8 percent among preschoolers aged 2 to 5 years old, but nearly 18 percent of ages 6 to 11 were obese in 2012 .

“When we set out our initial goal to reverse childhood obesity by 2016 we wanted to see clear progress and if you look at the national statistics we’re starting to level off nationwide,” Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, President and CEO of RWJF, told the PBS NewsHour, “We feel like there’s a real momentum going at the moment. We’ve turned the corner on this obesity epidemic, but the gains are fragile.”

The $1 billion invested over almost 20 years focuses on making schools healthy environments by promoting physical activity and healthier school lunches. In 2006 there were 231 schools supported by the Healthy Schools Program of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, now more than 26,000 schools are being supported.  First Lady Michelle Obama has made healthy eating, particularly in schools, her top public priority, but it hasn’t been without controversy. Last year a political fight broke out over new school lunch standards.

While some communities, particularly affluent ones, have seen a drop in their obesity rates, many communities are seeing very little change. African Americans and Latinos have much higher obesity rates than their white peers. Lavizzo-Mourey said RWJF is going to focus on areas that will help these often low-income groups create healthy environments.

“This is part of the reason why we are focusing in particular in making sure the school environments are healthy. This is also why we are focusing on ending food deserts, making sure everyone has access to healthy foods is so critical. We also need safe places for kids to be physically active,” said Lavizzo-Mourey.

RWJF is using Philadelphia, where obesity rates among minorities saw their biggest decline, as an example that it is possible to fight obesity across socioeconomic divides.  

Risa Lavizzo-Mourey will be on the PBS NewsHour this evening to discuss further how $1 billion can stop childhood obesity.