A prominent US health philanthropy has pledged $500m to tackle childhood obesity, with the aim of reversing the epidemic by 2015.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) last week said it would commit the sum over the next five years to expand research and school and community efforts to help tackle the growing public health threat.
The commitment, which claims to be the largest by any foundation to this issue, will be used to improve access to affordable healthy foods and promote physical activity.
It will place special emphasis on reaching children at greatest risk for obesity and related health problems: African-American, Latino, Native American, Asian American and Pacific Islander children living in low-income communities.
"This is an all-American crisis. It affects all Americans, and it will require all of America working together to turn it around. Our commitment is a call to action for families, schools, government, industry, health care and philanthropy," said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president and chief executive officer of RWJF.
"To reverse the obesity epidemic and create a culture of health, we must provide families with better access to healthy choices."
The foundation said that preventing obesity during childhood is critical, because habits that last into adulthood frequently are formed during youth.
Research has shown that overweight adolescents have up to an 80 percent chance of becoming overweight or obese adults. Earlier onset of obesity leads to the earlier onset of related illnesses, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and certain types of cancer.
During the past four decades, obesity rates have soared among all age groups, more than quadrupling among children ages 6 to 11. Today, more than 33 percent of children and adolescents-approximately 25 million kids-are overweight or obese, said RWJF.
"Individual choice and behavior are important, but the world we live in plays a big role, too. We have to make it easier for kids to eat well and move more," said Lavizzo-Mourey.
"That means more parks and safe places for kids to play, more grocery stores that stock affordable fresh produce, and improved school policies on nutrition and physical education. With this new commitment, we hope to foster more of these changes that will make it easier for families to raise healthy kids."
The investment will be used to encourage food and beverage companies to offer healthier products and change their marketing practices; expand school-based programs; and help states and communities coordinate their efforts, advocate for change, and evaluate impact.
For the past several years, RWJF has supported programs to address childhood obesity that offer potential for wide-scale change in communities and schools.
The group is the primary sponsor of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a joint initiative by former President Bill Clinton and the American Heart Association (AHA). The alliance, which is supported by major food firms such as Kraft, Mars, PepsiCo, Dannon and Campbell, has set out science-based nutritional guidelines for snacks sold in schools. These promote nutrient-rich foods, fat-free and low-fat dairy products, and place limits on calories, fat, saturated fat, trans fat, sugar and sodium. The guidelines also promote the consumption of fruits, vegetables and whole grain foods.
RWJF also supported the research behind messages for the Coalition for Healthy Children project, an Advertising Council created initiative. Set up in 2005, the coalition aims to help combat childhood obesity by developing consistent research-based messages for marketers, media and government agencies. Food and beverage firms that support the initiative include General Mills PepsiCo, Kraft Foods, Kellogg and Coca-Cola.
The foundation also commissioned a report published last year by the Institute of Medicine, which examined the nation's progress in preventing the spread of obesity in children. The report found that although diverse efforts have already been made to promote healthy eating and increase physical activity in children, these have remained fragmented and small-scale.