The announcement was made on Jan. 24 at the 2007 California Childhood Obesity Conference in Anaheim. In recognition of the unrestricted bequest, the center will be renamed the Dr. Robert C. and Veronica Atkins Center for Weight and Health.
The center was founded at UC Berkeley in 1999 by Pat Crawford and Joanne Ikeda, both UC cooperative extension nutrition specialists, and Sharon Fleming, UC Berkeley professor of nutritional sciences and toxicology. It was based solely at the College of Natural Resources until 2005, when it became jointly administered by the School of Public Health. Today, the co-directors of the center are Crawford and May Wang, adjunct assistant professor of community health and human development at the School of Public Health.
"What distinguishes our center is our focus on the prevention of pediatric obesity, and we are so grateful that the Atkins Foundation is supportive of that," said Crawford, who is also an adjunct professor of nutrition at the College of Natural Resources and the School of Public Health. "With this pledge, we'll be able to continue the important work we've been doing to help reverse the troubling epidemic of childhood obesity in this country."
The Atkins Foundation was established in 2003 following the death of Dr. Robert C. Atkins, whose pioneering, yet often controversial, clinical work and writings popularized a low-carbohydrate lifestyle. The foundation, which is unaffiliated with and operates independently of Atkins Nutritionals Inc., funds independent, evidence-based research examining the role of nutrition and metabolism in obesity, diabetes, cancer and other major health conditions, as well as educational programs, public health advocacy initiatives and endowed professorships.
"This commitment by the foundation will ensure the continuation of long-term programs of the Dr. Robert C. and Veronica Atkins Center for Weight and Health at UC Berkeley," said Paul Ludden, dean of the College of Natural Resources. "We are very excited about the opportunities this will provide for the future. Obesity, especially childhood obesity, is the major health problem facing our society today. Clearly, the foundation recognizes the power of the synergy between top-ranked programs in nutrition and public health as providing the total package for addressing this critically important health issue in our society."
The center, which does not conduct research evaluating diet plans, brings together experts from multiple disciplines in recognition of the complex mix of contributors to the obesity epidemic. Center researchers emphasize that solutions must involve many sectors of society, including food production and distribution, community safety and design, the health care system, schools and the media.
The center is currently home to some 30 active research projects, including a community intervention program to lower Type 2 diabetes risk among overweight, low-income, African-American children; evaluation of state laws taking effect this year that phase out sodas and sweetened beverages in public schools; and a prospective study evaluating the relation of the timing of food intake to weight among teenage girls.
"The center at UC Berkeley is a tribute to my husband's belief in the power of influencing public health outcomes, particularly in the battle against obesity," said Veronica Atkins, the widow of Dr. Atkins and chair of the Atkins Foundation's board of directors. "On behalf of the Atkins Foundation, I am proud to partner with a center as active and accomplished as Berkeley's, and excited to support the ongoing advances of its outstanding researchers."
One of the hallmarks of the center is the close connection researchers form with the community. "Community needs and priorities help drive the research agenda and, reciprocally, research results more effectively inform community action," said Crawford.
It was the center's focus on practical applications to obesity prevention that was particularly appealing to the Atkins Foundation. "The researchers at the center are out in the trenches, in the community, working hands-on to help people have healthier lifestyles," said Abby Bloch, the foundation's executive director of program and research. "The commitment of these researchers to this area of research and the translational application into the community are very much on target with the mission and goal of the foundation."
Funding for the center has come from grants to the researchers and administrative support from the College of Natural Resources and the School of Public Health. Upon the death of Veronica Atkins, the center will receive the $10 million gift from the foundation. Until then, UC Berkeley will continue to provide support for the center.
"The Atkins Foundation support will significantly strengthen our ability to solve one of the nation's most intractable problems - the growing percentage of Americans who are overweight and obese," said Stephen M. Shortell, professor and dean of the School of Public Health. "The foundation's commitment means that we will be able to touch thousands more lives with our interdisciplinary research and teaching that ranges from basic science research to community-wide interventions. The impact will be felt by generations."