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Turning Around an Epidemic

Philanthropy fuels a strategy to prevent childhood obesity

As an athlete, Peter Dolan, A78, A08P, has run marathons, competed in triathlons and completed the grueling Hawaii Ironman challenge. As a philanthropist, he is tackling an even bigger challenge: childhood obesity.

A Tufts University trustee and former CEO of Bristol-Myers Squibb, Dolan and his wife, Katie, have donated $1 million to a national initiative known as ChildObesity180, which he is chairing at the Friedman School.

ChildObesity180 seeks to become a major catalyst for prioritizing and driving the necessary systemic changes to reverse the trend of childhood obesity within a generation. Founded in 2009, ChildObesity180 draws on the expertise and reach of senior decision-makers from the highest levels of government, academia, public health advocacy, community organizations, the food industry and the media to drive an integrated national strategy to prevent childhood obesity.

With this new donation, Peter and Katie Dolan and have added to their previous gifts and pledges to Tufts University in support of financial aid, the Summer Scholars undergraduate research program, the Tufts Marathon Challenge, the School of Medicine and athletics. The Dolans’ latest gift supports the fundraising campaign under way for this large-scale campaign to make our kids healthier. ChildObesity180 was publicly launched last fall with a $6.9 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and $14.6 million in total funding has been raised so far. “This epidemic is too important to wait another moment,” says Christina Economos, Ph.D., N96, the Friedman School’s New Balance Chair in Childhood Nutrition, who is vice chair and director of ChildObesity180.

“Childhood obesity is the preeminent public health issue of our time,” she says. “Today, one-third of children in America are overweight or obese and on track to experience catastrophic health conditions, swamp health-care budgets and create unprecedented challenges across society.” The Dolan gift will provide core support for ChildObesity180 and serve as an engine to advance the group’s work, says the project’s codirector, Miriam Nelson, Ph.D., N85, N87, professor and director of the John Hancock Research Center on Physical Activity, Nutrition and Obesity Prevention at the Friedman School. “Peter is an amazing champion and leader for ChildObesity180,” she adds.

Robin Kanarek, Ph.D. , interim dean of the Friedman School, notes : “Without Peter’s vision and leadership, ChildObesity180 would not be possible. We are proud to be working with him to reverse the obesity epidemic in this country.”

ChildObesity180 takes a high-level view of all activities in the childhood obesity field and analyzes them to determine the best, most actionable and impactful opportunities. Through its unique decision-making matrix, the leadership of ChildObesity180 reviewed a comprehensive set of evidence-based obesity prevention recommendations and identified four priority areas on which to focus: children’s access to healthier foods, physical activity, marketing to children and eating out in restaurants.

To address these strategic areas and promote a collective impact, ChildObesity180 is developing and executing a portfolio of initiatives designed to affect numerous aspects of a child’s daily environment. This past February, with help from First Lady Michelle Obama, ChildObesity180 launched a nationwide competition for innovation in school-based physical activity as part of its Active Schools Acceleration Project.

“We know there’s so much good work going on all across this country to get our kids up and moving every single day,” Obama said in a video announcing the Active Schools Acceleration Project Competition, which ran through April. “So we want to find the best school programs and technology ideas that increase physical activity for kids—and then help them reach even more children throughout America.”

In the spring, the innovation competition—supported by more than $1.2 million from 13 of the nation’s leading health-insurance companies and foundations—awarded $500,000 in prizes, with individual awards of up to $100,000, for the most creative, impactful and scalable programs and technological innovations that promote quality physical activity for children during the school day. The next step will be for the Active Schools Acceleration Project to replicate the winning models on a larger scale, with the goal of achieving sustainable quality physical activity in schools.

The Active Schools Acceleration Project was the second initiative launched by ChildObesity180. The first, Healthy Kids Out of School, is a collaboration among nine of the nation’s largest after-school, sports and extracurricular organizations. Convened by ChildObesity180, the leaders of these groups developed and adopted universal nutrition and physical activity principles from a broad list of evidence-based recommendations for combating childhood obesity. Detailed implementation plans are under way, and a three-year, $1.5 million grant from the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation will help catalyze these efforts.

Through its portfolio of high-impact, evidence-based initiatives and its commitment to research and evaluation, ChildObesity180 will continue to bring partners to the table to work together in pursuit of a common mission: reversing the trend of childhood obesity within a generation, says Economos.

For more information about ChildObesity180, including how you can support its efforts, contact Cindy Briggs Tobin, senior director of development and alumni relations at the Friedman School, at 617.636.2940 or