Esther Jones and Phil Ford team up to fight childhood obesity

By Hope Baptiste ’87

Everyone loves to cuddle and coo over chubby-cheeked, biscuit-footed infants whose “baby fat” makes them especially adorable. But it’s no laughing matter when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that about one third of U.S. children and adolescents were overweight or obese in 2012. (Overweight is defined as having excess body weight for a particular height from fat, muscle, bone, water or a combination of these factors. Obesity is defined as having excess body fat.)

Percentage of high school students who were obese* — selected U.S. states, Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 2013

The problem is reaching epidemic proportions to the point that today’s youth could easily become the first generation to live shorter, less healthy lives than their parents. But retired Durham, N.C., native and schoolteacher Esther Morgan Jones and Carolina basketball great Phil Ford are teaming up with UNC Children’s Hospital and the Department of Pediatrics in the School of Medicine to do something about it.

In March at the 2014 ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament, Ford announced the launch of the Phil Ford Foundation, whose purpose is to support the research of obesity prevention and care through the Department of Pediatrics and N.C. Children’s Hospital at UNC. Ultimately, the foundation aims to establish a Center for Obesity Research and Prevention at UNC that will effect change and bring about long-term results in the field of obesity prevention in children and adolescents.

Led by Eliana Perrin, M.D., M.P.H., UNC’s work focuses on factors that impact a family’s ability to help their children maintain healthy lifestyles. The foundation is working to raise money that will provide a professorship, endowment funds and space to strengthen and secure a long-term focus on obesity in North Carolina and the United States.

https://youtu.be/WoAu6ZAQ4xc

When Jones met Ford and learned about his commitment, she was inspired, and moved, to become involved. “As a teacher, I have seen how kids drink soda like it’s water,” said Jones, 72, herself a competitive ballroom dancer and the epitome of physical fitness. “They bring fast food into my classroom, … really unhealthy food. Many of them aren’t physically active. I truly worry about what they’re doing to themselves.”

Though Jones has no ties to UNC  (she holds degrees from N.C. Central University and Seton Hall), she has committed $1.4 million through a charitable remainder trust to create the Phil Ford Foundation Distinguished Professorship of Pediatrics, which will support the future research center. “The problem is so widespread that it’s difficult to know how to make a difference,” Jones said. “This is my opportunity to do something meaningful and to touch children and adolescents on a much broader scale.”

Ford, the 1978 NCAA national player of the year, has seen obesity among participants in his basketball camp for rising eighth graders. One teen in particular made an impression on him. “We were leading different activities, and this one young man couldn’t do the figure eights,” Ford said. “The ball wouldn’t fit between his legs because of his size.”

The plight of that 14-year-old boy moved Ford to act. A Google search led him to discover Perrin’s research at his alma mater. He arranged to meet her and learn more. The pair collaborated over two years to develop a plan focused on childhood obesity research and prevention. Perrin, a general pediatrician by practice, cites North Carolina as having the fifth-highest obesity rate in the nation and points to lack of physical activity opportunities and America’s “toxic food environment” as primary causes.

“The young are surrounded by calorie-dense, nutrient-poor food options, which are also often cheaper than healthier choices,” Perrin said. “This makes healthy choices, which should be the default, the harder choices to make.”

Perrin said she hopes Jones’ generosity will inspire others to give. “Today’s youth is on a trajectory to becoming the first generation to live shorter, less healthy lives than their parents,” Perrin said. “Our team is doing a variety of research to determine how children can be immunized against unhealthy influences and develop healthy habits that last a lifetime. With additional supporters like Phil and Ms. Jones, we can make this center a reality and do so much more.”

About the Phil Ford Foundation

The Phil Ford Foundation was established to support the research of obesity prevention and care through the University of North Carolina’s Department of Pediatrics and NC Children’s Hospital at UNC. The goal of the Foundation is to establish a Center for Obesity Research and Prevention at UNC that will impact change and bring about long-term results in the field of obesity prevention in children and adolescents.