November 2009





Study Shows Overwhelming Parent Support for Healthier Schools

Oct. 28, 2009, RWJF Childhood Obesity News Digest

The vast majority of parents want schools to limit students’ access to high-calorie chips, sodas and candy and to offer them opportunities for physical activity throughout the day, a new survey by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation shows. The national survey signals the breadth of parents’ support for changes to make schools healthier places—and their willingness to help make those changes happen. In fact, nearly eight in 10 parents are ready to get more involved to create a healthier environment in their local schools.

Conducted for the Alliance by KRC Research, the survey found that more than 92 percent of parents consider physical education and health education as important as English, math and science instruction. Furthermore, 96 percent of parents believe that physical activity can boost their children’s classroom performance, and virtually all parents (99 percent) recognize that healthy eating also has a positive effect on learning.

The results indicate parents’ increasing awareness of the impact schools can have on student health. The survey also suggests widespread parental concern over the cuts many school systems have made in physical education and recess, often the unfortunate result of budget difficulties and standardized testing pressures.

“Schools across the country are trying their best to provide healthier environments for students, but they are working against significant time and resource constraints,” said Ginny Ehrlich, executive director of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. “What is exciting about the results of this survey is that not only do parents understand how important nutrition and physical activity are to the academic success of their children, but they are overwhelmingly willing to step up and be a part of the solution.”

Among the key findings from the online survey of 600 parents of children in grades K-12:

  • Parents nearly unanimously agree (98 percent) that their child’s school should offer opportunities for physical activity throughout the day, whether through P.E., activity breaks or recess and afterschool programs.
  • Almost as many parents (96 percent) agree that their child’s school should limit access to unhealthy snacks and sugar-sweetened beverages.
  • About two-thirds of parents (63 percent) believe schools play a major role in instilling healthy habits in students.
  • Four-fifths of parents have undertaken one or more health-related activity or advocacy effort in their local schools. Those include bringing nutritious foods to school parties or other events and pushing for healthier lunch menus or expanded health education for students.

“Parents get the connection between healthy schools, healthy students and academic achievement,” said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, M.D., M.B.A., president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). “They know that most school environments need to be improved, and it’s incredibly encouraging that they stand ready to help make the changes necessary.”

The results of the Alliance survey follow recent research findings that students who are healthy and physically active are more likely to be motivated, attentive and successful academically. In particular, studies have linked P.E. programs to stronger academic performance, increased concentration and higher math, reading and writing test scores.

Yet data from the 2006 federal School Health Policies and Programs Study (SHPPS) shows that nearly one-third of elementary schools do not schedule recess on a regular basis, and almost one in four children in elementary grades do not participate in any free-time physical activity during school hours. Only half of high school students have at least one P.E. class weekly.

By contrast, progress has been made on the nutrition front. Based on SHPPS data from 2002 to 2008, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently announced that fewer secondary schools now allow students to buy candy or higher-fat salty snacks. And in 34 states studied, there was a significant increase between 2006 and 2008 in the percentage of schools where students could not purchase sodas.


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Publications & Tools

Adolescent Obesity: Towards Evidence-Based Policy and Environment Solutions

September 2009, RWJF Childhood Obesity News Digest

A special supplement of the Journal of Adolescent Health presents research documenting trends toward healthier foods and more physical activity in schools. The authors acknowledge that a wide range of factors influence obesity’s development, but policy and environment solutions may be the key to reversing the childhood obesity trend.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) sponsors several research programs on which the 11 articles presented in this supplement are based. They include: National Collaborative on Childhood Obesity Research (NCCOR); Active Living Research (ALR) and Healthy Eating Research (HER); Bridging the Gap; and Yale University Rudd Center for Food. The studies are among the first to document how well state and local policies, enacted to enhance student wellness and address childhood obesity, are being implemented and whether they are making a difference.

Three of the studies examine compliance by individual schools or school districts with healthy eating policies, such as California’s nutrition standards, and two articles assess the current environments in schools nationwide. Collectively, they suggest that the stronger the standards, the more likely that a policy will be effectively implemented and have a real impact. The researchers also offered general policy recommendations and discuss the need for additional studies.

View the supplement’s editorial piece by Mary Story, Ph.D, RD, James F. Sallis, Ph.D., and C. Tracy Orleans, Ph.D.

Read briefs about each of the 11 research articles featured in the supplement and download the article PDFs.


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Study Finds Food Companies Aggressively Market Least Healthy Cereals to Children

Oct. 26, 2009, RWJF Childhood Obesity News Digest

Researchers find that children’s cereals have 85 percent more sugar, 65 percent less fiber and 60 percent more sodium than cereals marketed to adults. In addition, companies are spending more than $156 million dollars a year to market these cereals directly to kids. These findings are part of an extensive analysis of children’s cereals conducted by researchers at the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity as part of the RWJF-funded Cereal FACTS (Food Advertising to Children and Teens Score) project. The results of this study were presented at the 2009 Obesity Society Meeting in Washington, DC.

The complete report, Nutrition and Marketing Ratings of Children’s Cereals, offers unprecedented insight into the nutrition profile of children’s cereals and reveals how food companies are reaching kids to promote these products. The study also offers recommendations for protecting children from marketing for unhealthy products, including developing objective nutrition standards for cereals marketed to children and strengthening the definition of “children’s media.” Cereal manufacturers previously have pledged to market only healthy products through children’s media, but as currently defined the pledge does not apply to many programs popular with children. The report’s authors suggest developing a definition for children’s media based on the total number of children in the audience or the percentage of the audience that’s composed of children.

Get access to the full report here.


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Childhood Obesity Research & News

IoM Issues Recommendations to Improve Healthfulness of Federal School Meal Program

Oct. 21, 2009, RWJF Childhood Obesity News Digest, U.S. News & World Report

A new report from the Institute of Medicine (IoM) calls for updating federal standards to limit the calories in meals served in U.S. schools, as well as offer more fruits and vegetables, and whole grain food items, the Los Angeles Times reports.

At the request of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the IoM convened a committee to provide recommenda­tions to help better align school meals with federal dietary guidelines. The nutrition standards for the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program have not been updated since 1995.

To create the recommendations, the IoM used the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans outlined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the USDA, as well as the IoM’s Dietary Reference Intakes to analyze the food and nutrition­ needs of school-aged children. To align school meals with the various guidelines, the committee recommended that the Food and Nutrition Service of the USDA adopt standards for both menu planning and for meals selected by students.

For menu planning, the IoM suggests that schools increase daily fruit and vegetable servings. The guidelines also recommend that at least one-half of all grains and breads be whole grain and that only fat-free and low-fat milk be offered in schools. The new guidance establishes minimum and maximum calorie levels, rather than just minimum standards as exists under the current model, and calls for officials to “gradually but markedly decrease sodium to the specified level by 2020.”

The IoM report says lunches shouldn’t be more than 650 calories in grades K-5, 700 for middle-schoolers, and 850 for high-schoolers. Breakfasts, meantime, should range from 500 to 600 calories depending on the grade.

To achieve this goal, the committee recommends that the USDA “work cooperatively with HHS, the food industry, professional organizations, state agencies, advocacy groups and parents.” Finally, the report calls for the Food and Nutrition Service to provide support for menu development and improvement, or­dering of appropriate foods, and cost control.

The IoM also recommended that the service establish procedures to monitor the quality of school meals. The IoM report concludes that if the recommended changes are implemented, school meals will “appeal to students and contribute to their health and well being.” According to the report, the federal school meal programs in 2008 provided lunch to more than 30.5 million children and breakfast to 10.5 million children (MacVean, Los Angeles Times, 10/20/09; IoM report brief, 10/20/09).


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Cut the Fat: New Rules in Place for WIC Food Purchases

Oct. 3, 2009, Verde Valley News

By Howard Fischer

Unable to defeat childhood obesity with public relations campaigns, Arizona health officials are going to start using their power to force parents to buy healthier items.

Families enrolled in the WIC nutrition program — for women, infants and children — will find that their coupons are no longer good for the same quantities of some of the items they were getting for free before. Most notably, the milk, cheese and juices that formed much of the basis of the diet will be available in much smaller amounts, and mothers and children older than 2 will be able to get only fat-free and low-fat milk.

The list instead will include more whole grains. WIC families will be able to get soy-based beverages and tofu. Canned tuna and salmon will now be an acceptable purchase. And for the first time ever, there will be specific allocations for fresh fruits and vegetables.

Acting state Health Director Will Humble said the change will mean a lot more healthy Arizona children. The guidelines to qualify for WIC are fairly generous: A family of three can have income up to $33,875 and remain eligible; the figure for a family of four is $40,794. What that means, Humble said, is about 190,000 Arizona families are getting WIC coupons. That’s close to 60 percent of all families with children age 5 and younger.

“We’re finally able to do something about obesity besides just preaching to people to get some exercise and eat right,” he said. Humble said WIC foods are a “pretty significant” source of nourishment in homes of eligible families.

“With this change in the WIC menu, we have the opportunity to really hard-wire healthier eating habits into little kids, and into families that have little kids.”

The change, said Humble, reflects a new focus on the problem.

“The WIC menu was really derived at a time in the ‘70s when hunger was a major public health issue,” he explained. That’s why the list of eligible foods was focused on “foods that are decent foods but, in general, have quite a bit of fat and a lot of sugar. It was a lot of cheese,” Humble said.

“Over the last 30 years, we’ve seen a transition from when hunger was the major public health issue to today, when obesity is a far bigger public health issue,” he explained.

Hence, the need for a different menu. The cheese won’t be gone. But the purchases will be limited to a single 16-ounce package each time. The amount of milk available also will be less as will sugary juices.

“In exchange, we’ll be asking people to make healthier choices with their WIC coupons,” he said. … The change also will affect retailers: In order to be able to continue accepting WIC coupons that cannot be redeemed for canned items, some smaller stores had to start carrying fresh fruits and vegetables. “Some of them had to change their business strategy and order produce and fruits that they have never ordered before,” he said.


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Groups Launch New Foundation Devoted to Reducing Obesity Rates

Oct. 8, 2009, RWJF Childhood Obesity News Digest

A coalition of more than 40 retailers, food and beverage manufacturers and nongovernmental organizations teamed up to launch the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF), which aims to reduce obesity rates by 2015, particularly among children, the El Dorado Times reports.

The Foundation will encourage balancing calories consumed through a healthy diet with calories burned through physical activity by reaching individuals in the places where they spend much of their time: the marketplace, the workplace and schools. As part of the marketplace initiative, retailers and food manufacturers in the coalition may alter products, packaging or labeling; offer smaller portions and more complete caloric information; or provide more information or educational materials to consumers. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) will support an independent, objective evaluation of the marketplace initiative. As part of the workplace initiative, participating companies will launch new or enhance existing employee wellness programs, such as offering healthier foods in cafeterias and snack machines, providing access to exercise opportunities at work, and hosting weight management programs to help employees achieve and maintain a healthy weight.

Finally, the HWCF will expand the successful Healthy Schools Partnership to additional schools in Kansas City, where the program has been successfully piloted, and to schools in Des Moines, Iowa; Washington, D.C.; Chicago and a tribal community in Iowa. HWCF members, including General Mills, Campbell Soup, Sara Lee, Kraft Foods and Coca-Cola, as well as nonprofit partners such as the American Council for Fitness and Nutrition Foundation, Girl Scouts of the USA and the National Wildlife Federation, have committed $20 million to the efforts so far (El Dorado Times, 10/6/09; HWCF release, 10/5/09).


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National Business Group on Health Unveils Employer Toolkit for Childhood Obesity

Oct. 21, 2009, Marketwire

Saying that employers can no longer afford to ignore the epidemic of childhood obesity, the National Business Group on Health today announced the launch of “Childhood Obesity: It’s Everyone’s Business,” a toolkit designed to help U.S. employers address the growing problem of overweight and obese children.

Studies have shown that the prevalence of childhood obesity in the United States has nearly tripled over the past 30 years, with nearly one-third of children now considered either overweight or obese. The United States currently has the highest percentage of overweight youth in its history.

“There is a great deal at stake for U.S. employers,” said Helen Darling, President of the National Business Group on Health, whose members include 280 large U.S. employers. “An obese teenager has a 70 percent chance of become an obese adult. And with health care for obesity-related illnesses costing employers at least $45 billion annually, the price tag of this childhood epidemic could become unaffordable if we don’t change course.”

The new toolkit was developed with support from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources Services Administration’s Maternal and Child Health Bureau. It reflects growing employer interest in childhood obesity and practical solutions to the problem. Toolkit recommendations for employers intentionally build on the infrastructure and resources that many large employers already have in place.

“Employers are in a terrific position to be leaders in the battle against childhood obesity,” said LuAnn Heinen, a vice president and director of the Institute on the Costs and Health Effects of Obesity. “That’s one of the primary reasons we developed this toolkit. Our goal is to provide a range of options — and employer examples — that they can easily implement in their own company.”

The toolkit is divided into seven major components including an overview of childhood obesity and the major ways it impacts businesses. Four core components illustrate how initiatives employers already have in place may be expanded or leveraged to promote healthy child weight. These core components include:

  • Benefit Design: Aligning Stakeholders to Change Behavior
  • Employee Education: Equipping Employees for the Battle
  • Employer-Sponsored Programs and Onsite Facilities: Using What You Have
  • Community and Philanthropy: Reconsidering Company Contributions

“As overweight and obesity increases among children, employers are clearly going to be affected in many ways. Childhood obesity will lead to increased health care utilization and higher costs for employers. Poor child health will also decrease employee productivity as working parents often must leave work early and be absent to care for their child. Schools, child care facilities, communities and families have begun to respond but more focused efforts are urgently needed.

Employers and health care providers also have roles to play as part of a comprehensive solution. Clearly, childhood obesity is everyone’s business,” concluded Heinen.

The toolkit is available free of charge to the public at


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First Lady Calls for Small Changes to Reduce Childhood Obesity

Oct. 16, 2009, RWJF Childhood Obesity News Digest

In a recent address to employees at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), First Lady Michelle Obama urged parents to make small changes to improve their children’s health and reduce the risk of obesity, Chicago Breaking News reports. Obama was introduced by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who called her the “country’s leading advocate for health and wellness.” In her address, the first lady tackled practical, day-to-day challenges many Americans face when it comes to good nutrition “such as long work hours, dirty or unsafe neighborhood playgrounds, a lack of healthy food options [and] unhealthy take-out food.” During her speech, the first lady admitted that as recently as two years ago, she had “too often” relied on drive-thru restaurants to feed her daughters until receiving a wake-up call from her children’s pediatrician. The first lady recommended small changes, such as adding more fruits and vegetables to meals and reducing consumption of sugary drinks by switching to water. Obama, who called childhood obesity a “major public health threat right now,” also encouraged parents to urge their kids to be more active, even in front of the television, and to do more cooking at home. The first lady also urged the crowd to consider medical experts’ warnings that “for the first time in the history of our nation, the next generation may be on track to having a shorter lifespan than this generation, and their parents” (Skiba, Chicago Breaking News, 10/13/09; CBS News, 10/13/09).


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