Progress in curbing childhood obesity, but major racial gaps persist

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    Childhood obesity remains one of the largest public health problems in the United States. There have been a number of major campaigns to combat it. And, today, those efforts got a big boost.

    Here's Jeffrey Brown.


    There has been no shortage of initiatives in recent years to try to curb the problem, and last year the government reported some progress in that fight. The rate of obesity among children 2 to 5 years old has dropped from about 14 percent in 2004 to 8 percent in 2012.

    The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has been a key player in all of this, committing half-a-billion dollars since 2007. And today it pledged another $500 million over next 10 years. Its president, Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, made the announcement at an event with the first lady in New York today.

    She joins me now.

    And, for the record, the foundation has been a funder of the NewsHour in the past.

    So, welcome to you.

    And, as a starting point, there really has been progress, right? So, why the renewed effort?

    RISA LAVIZZO-MOUREY, President and CEO, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: There has been progress, indeed. You quoted some important statistics, a leveling off after 30 years of relentless rise in childhood obesity rates, and actual decrease among our youngest children.

    But these gains are fragile. They are not evenly distributed. We see more gains in white children and in children from higher incomes. So, frankly, we have got to renew our efforts and increase the momentum, spread these successes, so that all children have the opportunity to grow up at a healthy weight.


    Well, so you look — when you look at how to spend money in the future, what's worked? What do we know so far about what works?


    Well, we know that one of the most important things is that we have shown people can come together and work on this issue across communities.

    And so we're really going to focus on five areas, five very strategic areas that we think will make a difference, first, ensuring that children have a healthy weight when they start school. We know that if children start kindergarten at a healthy weight, they have a higher probability of maintaining that weight throughout their childhood, adolescence and into adulthood.

    We need to make sure that healthy schools are the norm, not the exception. Kids spend more time at school than any place else other than home. And we have seen more than 27,000 schools across the country really become healthy places.

    Third, we have to make sure that kids are physically active, they get up and moving, and we make physical activity fun, convenient, and they have safe places where they can be physically active. We have to make sure that parents have availability of healthy foods in their communities, so that they can prepare and hopefully prepare with their children healthy meals.

    And, finally and not least, by any means, we need to make sure that we eliminate sugar-sweetened beverages for children zero to 5 years old. Toddlers and young children simply have more healthy options to drink than sugar-sweetened beverages. So we want to engage children and youth and parents and the health care community in working on these five big strategies, because we think that will make a difference.


    Well, but where are you seeing it not working and why not? I mean, what are the biggest barriers to achieving those five things?


    One of the key things that we have seen is that communities that are challenged economically are having more difficulty investing in these kinds of strategies.

    So, we want to redouble our efforts to make sure that all communities, irrespective of their economic means, are able to invest in these kinds of strategies and help their children have the choices that will allow them to have a healthy weight.


    We do see disparities in some of the numbers, even in some of the gains, right, among some communities, African-American, Latino?


    We have seen much more progress among white children and children of higher incomes.

    But then there are cities like Philadelphia that have been able to demonstrate across-the-board reductions in obesity rates among all children of all racial and ethnic groups. So we know it can be done if people come together and employ a comprehensive approach like those five strategies that I mentioned.


    And does any of this include changing, working to change laws? I ask because some of the attempts at mandating some changes, especially when it comes to sugary drinks you were mentioning, some of those seem to have backfired.


    Well, we know that there are places, like Berkeley, that have enacted sugar-sweetened beverage taxes.

    And one of the things we're committed to doing is evaluating those kinds of changes, so that we will know what really works going forward. We already know that there are a variety of ways that we can use to change behaviors and give people more opportunities to choose healthy choices, like some of the efforts that have been used in Philadelphia, investing in more walking and bikeable approaches, ensuring that there are healthy foods in every community, in the corner stores, as well as the grocery stores, eliminating food deserts.

    We know these things work. And now we have to evaluate some of the other possibilities that are being enacted around the country.


    And just very briefly, in a word, what's the ultimate goal in 10 years?


    The ultimate goal in 2025 is to ensure that every child in this country has had the opportunity to grow up at a healthy weight, no matter where he or she lives and who they are.


    All right, Risa Lavizzo-Mourey of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, thanks so much.


    Thank you, Jeffrey. It's a pleasure to be here.

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