Leaders report signs of progress, call for collaboration and more intensive efforts to address disparities.

Published: May 10, 2012
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

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The Weight of the Nation conference, hosted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Washington, D.C., May 7–9, drew more than 1,000 advocates, researchers, practitioners, and policy-makers from all levels of government. Attendees gathered to share new research, report on current efforts and rally around evidence-based strategies to accelerate progress in reversing the nation's obesity epidemic.

Conference highlights included the release of a report from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) on ways to accelerate progress; new forecasts about obesity rates and related medical costs; a major announcement from the Partnership for a Healthier America; and the premiere of HBO's new obesity documentary.

These major events underscored key themes discussed during many conference sessions:

  • Health Disparities Persist: While some states and localities report making progress to stabilize—or even reduce—obesity rates, there is universal agreement that disparities are growing. Experts called for more intensive efforts to address the challenges faced by lower-income communities and communities of color, with a specific focus on reducing the marketing of unhealthy foods to kids, raising awareness and changing perceptions about consumption of sugary drinks, and supporting regular physical activity. Shiriki Kumanyika, founder of the African American Collaborative Obesity Research Network, talked about the importance of addressing health disparities. "We have to transform the environment to get rid of inequalities," Kumanyika said. "We have to lend power and resources where they are needed to level the playing field."
  • Everyone Has a Role to Play: Leaders from all disciplines—government, education, health care, industry, public health and more—challenged each other to work together to make preventing obesity a national priority. Conference attendees discussed the need to foster new relationships with unfamiliar partners and create forums for open, honest discussions with industry leaders and other private-sector players. Participants in numerous sessions called for professionals from different sectors to reach beyond their usual comfort zones. Maya Rockeymoore, director of Leadership for Healthy Communities, remarked, "When you find champions, you have gold."
  • Accelerate, Replicate and Scale Up: Discussing the apparent stabilization of national obesity rates, William Dietz, director of the CDC's Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity, noted, "We may be at the corner, but have not turned it." Experts called on leaders to learn from places that are stemming the tide of the epidemic—Alaska, California, Texas, Vermont, Boston, New York City, Philadelphia and other communities across the country—and spread the best practices far and wide. Although these signs of progress are encouraging, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius urged attendees to intensify their efforts. "Progress is not inevitable. We can't take our foot off the gas pedal," she remarked.

More than a dozen leaders of RWJF-funded programs participated in the conference, and the Foundation and three of its grantees were honored for outstanding contributions to the field:

  • The CDC recognized RWJF and two of its national programs, Active Living Research and Healthy Eating Research, with the Applied Obesity Research award for their combined efforts to solve the nation's obesity epidemic—not just documents its existence.
  • The CDC presented the Safe Routes to School National Partnership with the Game Changer Award in recognition of the Partnership's seven-year track record of making it easier and safer for children to walk and bike to school.

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Three videos on this page provide a sense of the conference and the Foundation's participation in it. In the first, James S. Marks, senior vice president and director of the RWJF Health Group, shares his thoughts on the importance of the conference. The second highlights how a number of RWJF staff, grantees and partners participated. The third is the video is from the May 8 award ceremony recognizing RWJF, Active Living Research and Healthy Eating Research.

On May 14 at 8 p.m., HBO will air the first two parts of its four-part documentary series confronting America's obesity epidemic. The second two parts will air the following evening. The entire series and related communications materials also will be available online for free.

To view more coverage of conference sessions, read panelists' quotes, and learn more about recommended resources, follow RWJF on Twitter, @RWJF_ChdObesity, and check out the hashtag #WON12.

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