The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is pouring $2 million into an initiative that will bring together five civil rights organizations with the prominence and strength to help reverse childhood obesity, especially in African-American and Latino communities where the epidemic continues to hit hardest.
Over the next 16 months, the groups will aim individually and collaboratively to advance the public advocacy and policy changes critical to creating healthier communities. The initiative recognizes the power of their work to solve systemic issues of racial and social injustice, which underlie many neighborhoods’ limited access to affordable, nutritious food or safe places for children to be physically active.
The organizations include the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC); Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF); National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); National Council of La Raza (NCLR); and National Urban League (NUL).
“These national organizations are coming together to take a stand,” said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, M.D., M.B.A., president and CEO of the Foundation. “They will help ensure that all communities benefit from the policy and environmental changes we know are necessary to reverse childhood obesity. Their unity speaks volumes about their commitment.”
RWJF’s announcement of the initiative coincides with September’s designation as National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month. Prevention is acutely needed in communities of color given the troubling disparities that persist in rates of childhood obesity and related health problems.
Forty percent of Hispanic boys are overweight or obese, for example, while nearly three of every 10 African-American adolescent girls are obese. And while obesity is associated with increased risk of asthma, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease for all children, the risk is decidedly higher among these populations.
Each of the five civil rights organizations has a particular perspective on the initiative’s goals and the efforts under way:
Brent Wilkes, LULAC executive director: “Childhood obesity among Latinos is an issue that demands immediate and ongoing attention, education and advocacy at the local, state and federal level. As part of its effort to respond to the epidemic, LULAC will spearhead Latinos Living Healthy. This initiative will mobilize grassroots networks of Latino community advocates to become vocal and vibrant participants in the public health policy process, to ensure positive health outcomes while specifically addressing childhood obesity.”
Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF president and general counsel: “The disparate effect of childhood obesity on the Latino and African American communities is a national civil rights issue, with significant effects on the future American workforce that will sustain and continue to build our great nation. We must act now to address this problem in order to secure our national future. MALDEF is pleased to partner with our sister organizations and RWJF in taking on this critical concern.”
Benjamin Todd Jealous, NAACP president and CEO: “This epidemic is a social justice issue and is affecting African-American communities and communities of color at a disparate rate. We have to ask ourselves, who will take the responsibility to support public policies that will make our communities healthier? Who should be held accountable for the health of our children? The NAACP is ready to take the responsibility to fight for the health of the next generation.”
Janet Murguia, NCLR president and CEO: “When two-fifths of Latino children are suffering from childhood overweight and obesity, it is not just a food problem–it is an issue that threatens the very future of this community and our country. As a nation, we must address the deep-rooted social and environmental factors that have left Latino children and families with a limited ability to access healthy, affordable foods and take charge of their own health and well-being.”
Marc Morial, NUL president and CEO: “We are pleased and empowered to join in this important initiative with RWJF and the other civil rights organizations to put an end to childhood obesity. At the National Urban League, we are dedicated to effective solutions in the areas of policy, advocacy, and community based programs and will use these tools to overcome this challenge to the well-being of our children and communities.”
The groups are addressing childhood obesity through their own constituencies and a focus on the federal and/or state policies that can most impact child health, child nutrition and health disparities within their particular communities. As part of the initiative, they are preparing policy briefs and analyses, planning advocacy trainings, holding regional roundtable discussions and highlighting childhood obesity at their national meetings.