Why the American Heart Association Just Got Big Money to Fight Childhood Obesity

What does the American Heart Association know about kids? Isn't the AHA — one of those hallowed nonprofits that's been around forever — mainly focused on stopping middle-aged adults from dropping dead of heart attacks?

Well, the AHA must know something about kids, because the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) has dropped $9.8 million in the association's lap to combat childhood obesity. (See RWJF: Grants for Public Health.)

Childhood obesity is an entrenched and growing problem in American society. The forces behind it are deep, as are the societal challenges that childhood obesity creates. Obese children are more likely than their non-obese counterparts to be obese as adults. This fact raises the question: How can we help kids while they're still young, before their problems become irreversible? How can we prevent a generation of American children from entering adulthood predisposed to heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and a range of other health problems that are at least partially preventable?

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has focused on these questions since 2007, when it announced a $500 million initiative to fight childhood obesity — an effort the New York Times called "one of the largest public health initiatives ever tried by a private philanthropy."

In 2011 and 2012, the RWJF spent more than $100 million on 100-plus projects to research childhood obesity, conduct outreach to children and policy leaders, improve healthy food options for children, and generally support innovative work being done by non-profit organizations and universities around the country.

If you think about it, granting serious money to the AHA makes a lot of sense, given the organization's focus on preventing heart disease and its long recognition that childhood obesity is a major risk factor in that illness. In conjunction with the RWJF, the American Heart Association plans to increase the outreach and research it already does in this area and create policy solutions to reverse the tide of childhood obesity by 2015. Specifically, the AHA will work toward influencing local, state, and federal policies regarding children's access to healthy foods, physical activity, and wellness education.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has additional money to contribute to childhood obesity research in 2013, and it is soliciting proposals for how exactly that money should be spent. There is an upcoming deadline for proposals toward the end March, so if you're interested in funding for your research — particularly if it relates to combating childhood obesity among low-income populations — now is the time to submit those concept papers.

Even if you miss that deadline, no worries: RWJF's childhood obesity funding isn't going to dry up anytime soon.