The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) has awarded 14 research grants that will explore how federal, state and local school food policies can help prevent childhood obesity, especially among low-income and minority populations who have the highest risk for being overweight. Over the past three decades, rates of obesity in the United States have more than doubled among children ages 2 to 5 and more than tripled among those ages 6 to 11. Today approximately 9 million U.S. children over age 6 are considered obese.
The 14 grants totaling $3 million were awarded to universities and research organizations nationwide through RWJF's Healthy Eating Research program, based at the University of Minnesota. (See list of grants below.)
"More than 54 million U.S. children attend school and consume a substantial portion of their daily food intake there," said C. Tracy Orleans, Ph.D., RWJF distinguished fellow and senior scientist. "Policy-makers, school boards, parents and others are considering changes to improve the nutritional quality and portion sizes of school foods. However, there's little evidence to indicate which strategies will be the most effective in promoting healthier eating among students. We want to help those groups figure out what to do."
The research projects represent the Foundation's latest investment in building the evidence regarding what works to prevent childhood obesity. RWJF has committed $11 million over the next five years to Healthy Eating Research, with a special emphasis on preventing obesity among children at greatest risk: African-American, Hispanic, Native American and Asian/Pacific Islander children living in low-income communities.
"A landmark child obesity prevention report from the Institute of Medicine notes that school food policies and food environments are one of the most powerful ways of reducing childhood obesity," said Mary Story, Ph.D., R.D., director of the Healthy Eating Research Program and University of Minnesota professor. "But these food policies and environments are not well understood."
According to national data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, less than 20 percent of the nation's children over two years of age eat the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables, and many children consume excess fat and calories. At the same time, Story notes, national data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that children are not getting recommended amounts of daily physical activity.
The first round of Healthy Eating Research studies will look at statewide nutrition standards; wellness policies; access to healthy and unhealthy foods during the school day; the impact of policies on students' eating habits and on school food revenues; the role of school food commodity programs; the marketing of high-calorie, low-nutrition foods and beverages; and legal and contractual issues in schools. Funding will support two national studies, as well as studies that will examine school food policies in eight states (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Maine, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Washington).
"Together all of these studies will create an unprecedented body of evidence to inform decision-makers and lead to better policies," Story said.