Half-a-Billion Dollars to Beat Obesity

In an effort to combat rising rates of childhood obesity, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation announced Wednesday that it would commit at least $500 million over the next five years to tackle the problem.

The announcement means that more money than ever will be spent to try to reverse the epidemic of childhood obesity in the United States -- a goal that the foundation hopes to achieve by 2015.

The effort may not come a moment too soon. Today in the United States, about 25 million kids -- more than 33 percent of the country's children and adolescents -- are either overweight or at risk of becoming overweight.

The grant money is available to anyone with a good idea on how to curb the trend. Ideas on lifestyle modification, facilities for physical activity and school nutrition programs have already been proposed.

And the grant will focus on reaching kids and families in underserved communities -- in many ways, the epicenter of the nation's childhood obesity problem.

But even the foundation's officers say that $500 million is only a start when it comes to solving the growing crisis of kids who eat far too much -- and exercise far too little.

"This is the largest commitment we've ever made as a foundation," says Dr. James Marks, senior vice president and director of health programs for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

"But large as that is, we know it's not enough."

Will Half-a-Billion Make a Dent?

Depending on how it is spent, health experts say the money could have a giant initial impact.

"It's a huge potential," says Keith Ayoob, associate professor in the department of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. "But it's going to be a tool, and like any tool, it can be used wisely or squandered."

Ayoob says it will be critical that the money is not used on only institutional programs but also on programs aimed at parents that ensure healthy lifestyle choices for children in their home environments.

But considering the sheer scope of the problem, some public health experts say half a billion may just represent a healthy start.

"I think that given the magnitude of the problem and how pervasive it is worldwide, we need more investment in this than just $500 million," says Robert Jeffrey, professor of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota's division of epidemiology and community health.

Marks says he hopes the move will be seen as a catalyst -- one that will spur other philanthropic groups, government institutions and individuals to action.

"What we hope is that it changes the landscape and that others, such as government and private industries, will recognize this problem," he says.

Considering the amount of attention that the threat of childhood obesity has already received, the move will likely garner many allies, Ayoob says.

"I think the chances for working together against this problem are pretty good, because already we have seen the rumblings of that," he says. "I see this as a start, and I hope that it is a catalyst for action."

An Uphill Battle

Still, with millions of children already experiencing the health effects of overweight and obesity, efforts to turn the tide may be off to a woefully late start.

"I'd like to be optimistic, but right now we've got a long way to go," Jeffrey says. "We live in a country in which both the environment and culture is hooked on overeating.

"I think that, as a culture, we are largely in denial on this."

Adding to the problem, Jeffrey says, is the challenge of getting the food industry onboard. Because of the effects that food marketing and advertising have on children, he says, the sector's participation may make or break efforts.

"If we are going to do this right, we need to get into some very murky and heavily political issues," he says.

Still, there are large-scale success stories to be seen. In the four years since launching a statewide obesity initiative, Arkansas has put the brakes on skyrocketing childhood obesity rates.

Initiatives like these, says Arkansas Surgeon General Dr. Joe Thompson, are critical in saving a generation from a host of obesity-related health effects.

"When we look at the adult diseases that are starting to occur in children, we cannot afford not to take action," he says.

Consequences of Inaction

Other states may be wise to follow Arkansas' lead -- and quickly. Jeffrey says that if the trend is not reversed, dire health impacts on society await.

"There are some people who believe that we might actually see a decrease in life expectancy," he says.

But in addition to a widespread increased risk of diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and certain types of cancer, the nation may also face a huge economic toll. Already, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation estimates that the obesity epidemic costs the country $117 billion a year in direct health care costs and lost productivity.

Childhood obesity alone accounts for $14 billion of this toll, primarily in the form of direct health care costs to treat kids.

"I am not sure our health care system can bear the cost of this," Ayoob says. "We are going to be spending more and more time with chronic diseases decades before we expected to see them."

Marks agrees. "We cannot afford the health consequences right now, much less down the line," he says.

"This is the most serious health problem facing our children. It is nothing more or less than that."

ABC News correspondent Kate Snow contributed to this report.