Treats for All? Who's Likely to Get a Piece of RWJF's New Money for Childhood Obesity

Who said foundations can't stick with an issue? Sure, we see our share of fickle funders who flirt but can't really commit, but we also see foundations that hammer away tenaciously at a challenge for years and then decades.

A case in point: the Robert Johnson Foundation just pledged another $500 million to fight childhood obesity—a commitment that comes eight years after an initial outlay of the same amount. News of this mega-renewal generated zero buzz last week, since it's hardly a secret that RWJF wants America to lose some weight. But it's actually a big deal, because when was the last time a U.S. foundation pledged to spend a total of $1 billion to solve a problem? 

Now, we could go on for a few paragraphs about what a hefty problem childhood obesity is, and how it leads to all sorts of later health problems. But let's skip all that and cut to what really matters: Who'll get RWJF's money. 

We reported previously on how some of the money was spent last time, with big winners including the American Heart Association, Alliance for a Healthier Generation, YMCA, Salud! America, and a few different universities.

The signature initiative of that first push was the Healthy Schools Program of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, which was scaled up with RWJF money, going from supporting 231 schools in 2006 to now more than 26,000. In theory, all 26,000 of those schools are making key campus changes to ensure healthy foods and physical activity are available before, during and after school.

RWJF’s 2007 give also created Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities, a national program supporting community change efforts that made healthy eating and active living the easy choice in 50 sites across the country and served as a model for later federal funding. And it funded an unprecedented effort to address obesity within communities of color, which is where Salud! America took the lead. The foundation also funded independent evaluations of significant commitments by the food and beverage industry, which demonstrated progress by major companies to cut 6.4 trillion calories from the marketplace.

So what about this time? Where is the new money likely to go?

That's hard to say, exactly, but one thing is clear: RWJF is zeroing in even more on the racial disparities when it comes to childhood obesity. As well, it seems to be gearing up for a big fight with food and beverage makers. 

First, on the race angle: It’s well-known that children living in poverty, and children of color tend to have the highest obesity rates. And though childhood obesity rates have been declining after years of increases, more than a third of young people in the U.S. are overweight or obese and rates among African-American and Latino youth remain higher than those for their white peers. What's more, almost zero progress has been made toward reducing these racial disparities. 

RWJF is clearly intent on doing something about that, so we expect big money to go to efforts targeting communities of color. Through Salud! America, RWJF has supported the Research Network to Prevent Obesity Among Latino Children, and that work would seems likely to continue, perhaps in addition to some signature new effort. Organizations and scholars with expertise on obesity in communities of color would seem well-positioned to get RWJF money at some point. 

As for strategies, the foundation says its approach will include limiting sugar-sweetened drinks, upping daily physical activity, and making healthy foods and drinks “cool” and affordable in all neighborhoods and communities. Also, it wants to start early with kids to "ensure that all children enter kindergarten at a healthy weight." 

That goal, of getting at the toddler crowd, suggests that RWJF may be looking to hook up with organizations that work closely with these little people, like pre-k and childcare organizations. And what great timing, too, since the world of early childhood education is, itself, scaling up. Snack time won't be as tasty as it used to be, we'd bet. 

But maybe RWJF's most radical goal is to "eliminate the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages among 0-5 year olds." 

That's right, RWJF wants to eliminate those drinks, now enjoyed by millions of kids. And how might that goal be accomplished? We have no clue, but some level of trench warfare with the companies that push sugar-drinks on America's families seems unavoidable. And so we're guessing that policy and advocacy groups will be big winners in RWJF's second phase of its titanic battle against childhood obesity. As well, serious money is likely to flow to groups that can educate parents on why not to buy those enticing 8-packs of Hawaiian Punch even as tots beg for them at high decibels. Who knows, maybe RWJF will bankroll some organization that pressures super markets to put such poison on higher shelves. 

Pulling back the lens a bit, the big change at RWJF since it first started its childhood obesity work is that the foundation has developed its Culture of Health framework to guide all grantmaking. So look for this new round of grantmaking to unfold within that broader context. 

"By 2025, we want to ensure that children in America grow up at a healthy weight, no matter who they are or where they live," said RWJF president and CEO Risa Lavizzo-Mourey. "We have made substantial progress, but there is far more to do and we can't stop now. This commitment is part of the foundation's effort to build a Culture of Health in every community across the country. We all have a role to play in our homes, schools, and neighborhoods to ensure that all kids have healthy food and safe places to play."