New Research Initiative Aims to Promote Healthy Eating, Prevent Obesity Among Children

December 15, 2005

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) today launched Healthy Eating Research, a new program to determine effective changes in policies and environments that can promote healthy eating among children. The five-year, $16 million program is a key component of RWJF's efforts to prevent childhood obesity, and will be directed by Mary Story, Ph.D., R.D., professor in the division of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health.

Healthy Eating Research was created to build and strengthen evidence needed to halt the epidemic of childhood obesity in the United States. Over the past three decades, rates of obesity in the U.S. have more than doubled among children ages 2 to 5 and more than tripled among those ages 6 to 11.

"If we don't act to reverse the alarming trend of childhood obesity, we are in danger of raising the first generation of American children who will live sicker and die younger than the generation before them," said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, M.D., M.B.A., RWJF president and CEO. "We know that effective action must be built on strong evidence. Studies funded through Healthy Eating Research will help inform solutions for expanding access to affordable, healthy foods for children and families across the nation."

The program will fund research that identifies, analyzes and evaluates environmental and policy approaches that can promote healthy eating and prevent obesity among children, particularly in low-income and racial/ethnic communities where childhood obesity is most prevalent. It complements RWJF’s Active Living Research program, which informs strategies to increase physical activity among all Americans.

The launch of this new initiative comes days after the release of an Institute of Medicine (IOM) report regarding the way that food marketing influences children’s preference for and consumption of high-calorie, low-nutrient foods and beverages. The IOM urged governments and schools to create healthier school food environments by adopting nutritional standards for all competitive foods and beverages sold in schools and ensuring that in-school promotional efforts feature products that support healthy diets.

The influence of school food environments and policies on children’s diets is a priority area of interest for Healthy Eating Research and the topic of its first Call for Proposals, issued today. Schools are a critical setting for addressing childhood obesity, as more than 54 million children attend the nation’s schools, and a substantial portion of their daily food consumption occurs within the school setting. Federal, state and local policy leaders across the country are considering changes to improve school nutrition, though there is often little evidence to indicate which strategies are most effective in promoting healthier eating among students.

"Environmental and policy changes are potentially the most powerful—but least well understood—strategies for addressing childhood obesity," said C. Tracy Orleans, Ph.D., RWJF senior scientist and senior program officer. "Healthy Eating Research will fund innovative studies and help to build a multidisciplinary research field to expand the evidence base in this key area."

In addition to Story, the program leadership team will include Robert W. Jeffery, Ph.D. and Leslie A. Lytle, Ph.D., R.D., professors in the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health, and Karen M. Kaphingst, who will serve as deputy director. An expert advisory panel will be chaired by Shiriki Kumanyika, Ph.D., M.P.H., professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

"We need to better understand how to change policies and environments in ways that make healthy eating the easier, more accessible and more appealing option for children," said Story. "Healthy Eating Research studies will inform policy makers, school administrators, community leaders and others about how to achieve this goal effectively. This research should produce important, action-oriented results that will not only help to improve children's diets but also will set them on course for a long, healthy life."

The Healthy Eating Research Call for Proposals is available online at www.rwjf.org/cfp/her. Proposals are due March 7, 2006. Potential applicants should contact the program at (888) 635-7433 or visit www.healthyeatingresearch.org for more information.

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The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation focuses on the pressing health and health care issues facing our country. As the nation's largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to improving the health and health care of all Americans, the Foundation works with a diverse group of organizations and individuals to identify solutions and achieve comprehensive, meaningful and timely change. For more than 30 years the Foundation has brought experience, commitment, and a rigorous, balanced approach to the problems that affect the health and health care of those it serves. When it comes to helping Americans lead healthier lives and get the care they need, the Foundation expects to make a difference in your lifetime.

For more than 60 years, the University of Minnesota School of Public Health (www.sph.umn.edu) has been among the top accredited schools of public health in the nation. With a mission focused on research, teaching, and service, the School attracts nearly $70 million in sponsored research each year, has more than 100 faculty members and more than 900 students, and is engaged in community outreach activities locally, nationally and in dozens of countries worldwide.


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