PRINCETON, N.J.– The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) has awarded multi-year grants to 41 communities across the country as part of a landmark national program to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic by 2015.
The 41 sites are funded through Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities, an RWJF program that supports local efforts to improve access to affordable healthy foods and opportunities for physical activity for children and families. With nine communities named as leading sites in 2008, the program now encompasses 50 sites in more than half of the states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. And with a total commitment of $33 million over five years, it is the Foundation’s single largest investment in community-based solutions to childhood obesity.
“These sites can help move the country toward a place where good health is built right into the environment,” said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, M.D., M.B.A., president and CEO of the Foundation. “All children, no matter where they live, should be able to jump on a bike and ride safely in their neighborhood or to school. They should be able to play in a well-maintained and crime-free park. And they and their families should be able to easily find-and afford-fresh, healthy foods.”
More than 23 million children and adolescents in the United States-nearly a third of youth ages 2 to 19-are now overweight or obese. Even among ages 2 to 5, the rate of overweight and obesity is 24 percent. Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities is a cornerstone of RWJF’s $500 million commitment to reverse the epidemic.
The program will work in communities as diverse as Houghton County in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and Desoto, Marshall and Tate counties in the Mississippi Delta. Some are big cities like Houston and Philadelphia, others small, isolated locations like Cuba, N.M. But all of the targeted neighborhoods have a significant obesity problem exacerbated by such issues as high unemployment and poverty, crime, dangerous traffic, too few grocery stores and aging, broken or insufficient infrastructure.
The new sites and the program as a whole will target the barriers that make it difficult for children to get daily physical activity or eat healthy foods. They’ll then determine what new policies and environmental changes would work best to overcome those barriers and reduce the prevalence of obesity.
Project leaders in all 50 communities have recruited an impressive array of local partners, including academic and health institutions, faith-based groups and nonprofit organizations, even chambers of commerce and a bicycling association. Many also are involving urban planners, local parks departments or school districts.
“Where people live has a huge impact on their health and quality of life,” said Sarah Strunk, M.H. A., director of Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities. “The Foundation’s investment in 50 communities across the nation-and collaboration among passionate, committed leaders and advocates-means that children who are at greatest risk for obesity will find that the healthy choice becomes the easier choice.”
Each of the 41 new communities will receive a four-year grant of up to $360,000 to craft innovative solutions aimed at helping children and families lead healthier lives. Among the varied approaches they will pursue:
— Nash and Edgecombe Counties, North Carolina will tackle obesity among very young children by working with pre-school providers to make sure they support active play and serve nutritious foods. The project also will forge ties with medical providers to help them educate parents.
— Portland, Oregon will use GIS (geographic information system) mapping to identify disparities such as a lack of parks, grocery stores or safe walking paths. The project will then build such features into lower-income areas of the city.
— Kansas City plans to expand access to healthy foods through a sustainable food program servicing the metropolitan area on both sides of the Kansas-Missouri state line.
— Kingston, New York aims to transform a decaying urban core of empty storefronts and a hazardous main street into a midtown with parks, trails and community gardens.
As successes are replicated, more and more communities will be transformed. “Who wouldn’t want to leave this kind of legacy for our kids?” Strunk said.