Inside the Growing Push Against Latino Obesity

The players with the deepest pockets showed up first: In 2007, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation decided to commit $500 million to fighting childhood obesity. That year, they partnered with Amelie Ramirez, one the nation's top health researchers focused on Latinos, to establish Salud America!, an anti-obesity initiative specifically geared toward Latinos. At the time, nearly 40% of Latino children around the country were overweight and obese, so drastic measures seemed necessary. “In 2007-08, Hispanic boys, aged 2-19 years, were significantly more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic white boys,” says the CDC’s website. So RWJF founded Salud America! with a $15 million initial gift, and has supported it every year since.

With Salud America! out in front and running strong, philanthropies of all sizes have begun to take notice of the problem. Many of them already had some form of anti-obesity program (usually anti-childhood obesity) and are now engaged in spinning off a little money on the side to address Latino obesity. The Aetna Foundation has long been working on obesity and, in the past few years, has made a number of grants around the nation that specifically target Latino kids. Recently, for example, Aetna set aside $130,000 for the Hispanic Federation, a New York-based organization seeking to launch an ambitious pilot program in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The Hispanic Federation wants to get the mostly Hispanic community in the area talking about obesity, and aims to empower teens with the knowledge, leadership, and data-mapping skills to have conversations and collect information from their neighborhoods.

And smaller projects and grants are starting to pop up around the country. You just have to know where to look, because while childhood obesity has become somewhat of a health philanthropy buzzword, Latino obesity is still pretty obscure. But that may be changing. In early 2011, the California Wellness Foundation decided to back the California Health Leaders Project with a $65,000 contribution. The gift will be used to support various nonprofits around the state, all of which are devoted to improving health prospects in Latino communities.

Meanwhile, in Ohio, the Medical Mutual Charitable Foundation has devoted $50,000 to found the Cleveland Hispanic Adolescent Health Initiative, which is designed to create programming for Hispanic teenage boys to prevent obesity and encourage healthy decisions.

While the push to support Latino obesity initiatives is gaining steam, it’s still a fairly uncommon focus for foundations, whether national or local. But that may be changing. Look for announcements from philanthropies working in public health, minority issues, and poverty, as they may start taking cues from RWJF and Aetna.