Wednesday, March 17, 2010

First Lady To Corporate Food Giants: Time To Rethink...And 'Step It Up'

From ingredients to marketing, Mrs. Obama asks Big Food to get healthy and get
Tuesday was a signal moment in the history of food politics in America. First Lady Michelle Obama gave the most pointed policy remarks she's made to date, to an audience of the biggest corporate food makers in the land. During a keynote address to the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), Mrs. Obama challenged the food giants to join her child obesity campaign, by dramatically altering the foods they create, and doing their part to change the entrenched American desire for unhealthy foods.

The First Lady called for vision, imagination, and rapid action. She called for personal responsibility and increasing public trust. Mrs. Obama spoke as a mother, and as the collective conscience of a generation that's put its offspring at risk for a lifetime of problems. She spoke as a visionary, predicting two futures: One good, one bad, depending on what kind of action is taken. It was an If not now, when? speech, food version.

It was a lot of action for a food products Science Forum in the middle of DC.

There were light moments. The First Lady resembled a frothy candy box, in her fetching ensemble by designer L'Wren Scott. She told the food makers she could do for them what she'd done for the hula hoop. She joked about daughter Sasha comparing the food executives to Honey Nut Cheerios. She joked that before she had her own family food epiphany, the word "pre" drove her food choices, as in pre-cut, pre-cooked, pre-packaged. There is perhaps no group more critical to Mrs. Obama's mission to end child obesity than corporate food makers, who control and supply most of America's food chain, no matter how many home gardens and farmers markets are created. The GMA has among its hundreds of members Coca Cola, General Mills, Kraft, ConAgra, Cargill. The First Lady had a bully pulpit, but there was no bullying going on. The execs gave Mrs. Obama a standing ovation when she was done. (Above: Mrs. Obama during her remarks)

Mrs. Obama was introduced by Rick Wolford, chairman and CEO of Del Monte Foods Co., who chairs the GMA.

"This is a watershed moment in the fight against obesity," Wolford said. "We are willing to do more and we are willing to go the extra mile."

After lauding the food giants for their past health initiatives, the First Lady asked for far more than the extra mile. She spent the next twenty minutes asking the execs to make changing the fundamental corporate practices that lead to child obesity a "national priority."

"I’m here today to urge all of you to move faster and to go farther, because the truth is we don’t have a moment to waste," Mrs. Obama said. "We need you not just to tweak around the edges, but to entirely rethink the products that you’re offering, the information that you provide about these products, and how you market those products to our children."

Mrs. Obama was blunt, as she mentioned improving school lunches and the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, a Let's Move! project to get supermarkets into underserved areas. Parents, teachers and government officials are all responsible for child health, she said, but the food industry has a special role to play.

"Here’s the thing--we can build shiny new supermarkets on every block, but we need those supermarkets to actually provide healthy options at prices people can afford. And we can insist that our schools serve better food, but we need to actually produce that food," Mrs. Obama said.

Getting rid of excess sugar, salt, fat...
The First Lady called for the food makers to "step it up," to work as fast as possible to lower the levels of fat, salt and sugar in foods, and to add in more of the nutrients children need.

"We all need to step up in this country," Mrs. Obama added, and noted that she's already taken her message wide. "This is a shared responsibility."

Reducing excess salt, sugar, and fats from foods has been a shared responsibility that lately, there have been many calls to legislate, through taxes or bans, on the local, state, and federal level. For instance, shortly after Mrs. Obama brought Let's Move! to Philadelphia, Mayor Michael Nutter took the opportunity to introduce a soda tax. Obesity, Nutter said, thanks to the stir Mrs. Obama caused in town (Nutter was also, however, motivated by an already tanking city budget, further demolished by a season of record-breaking snows). New York City, with its aggressive moves at food legislation, and activist public health commissioners, has led the way in not waiting for food makers to voluntarily improve. President Obama's pick to lead the CDC, Dr. Thomas Frieden, left the city for his federal position, and he's now the equivalent of the Sword of Damocles for food makers. As is Dr. Margaret Hamburg, FDA commissioner. Responsible volunteerism in creating healthy food makes sense these days. There's plenty of potential for regulation, but Mrs. Obama is not asking for it.

More of the truth...and common ground
Mrs. Obama has frequently talked about the need for better labeling; a pillar of the Let's Move! campaign is giving families easy access to food information. She asked the industry leaders to work with her on improving labeling, which she referred to as a "no brainer."

"There’s absolutely no reason why we cannot find common ground on this issue," Mrs. Obama said. "This is the bare minimum we should do for our kids to help their parents make good choices. "

Everyone in the room was well aware that at the beginning of March, FDA went public with the fact that warning letters had been sent to 17 different food companies that have false health claims on their labels. It's easy to avoid that kind of action, Mrs. Obama maintained. And she's not asking for legislative action.

"I...know that we can’t solve this problem [obesity] by passing a bunch of laws in Washington," Mrs. Obama said. But she added "We can give parents all the information in the world, but they still won’t have time to untangle labels filled with 10-syllable words or do long division with these portion sizes."

Food addiction...and marketing to children
And then she got into the nitty gritty. For the first time in public remarks, Mrs. Obama discussed food addiction, and the food industry's culpability in creating a national appetite for unhealthy products that are not only supersized, but super unhealthy. She didn't say the words food addiction, but that's precisely what she was talking about. Brain changes from early and frequent exposure to an excess of unnecessary ingredients, which the food industry has turned into a science for boosting food desire--and consumption.

"We all know that human beings--I, for one, know--are hard-wired to crave sugary, fatty, salty foods," Mrs. Obama said. "And it is temping to take advantage of that–-to create products that are sweeter, richer, and saltier than ever before. But doing so doesn’t just respond to people’s natural inclinations -- it also actually helps to shape them."

That's "particularly dangerous" for children, Mrs. Obama said. "The more of these products they have in their diets, the more accustomed they become to those tastes, and then the more deeply embedded these foods become in their eating habits."

It's critical that that changes, she said, and it's equally critical that food marketing changes right along with it.

"As a mom, I know it is my responsibility--and no one else’s--to raise my kids," Mrs. Obama said. "But what does it mean when so many parents are finding that their best efforts are undermined by an avalanche of advertisements aimed at their kids?"

Mrs. Obama urged the food makers to flip the paradigm, and put their decades of marketing expertise and corporate dollars into promoting healthy foods. Up the cool factor, she urged. Stop using celebs and cartoon characters to sell junk foods.

"I’m asking you to actively promote healthy foods and healthy habits to our kids," Mrs. Obama said. "Just as we can shape our children’s preferences for high-calorie, low-nutrient foods--with a lot of persistence, we can also turn them on to high-quality, healthier foods as well."

"If there is anyone here who can sell food to our kids, it’s you," Mrs. Obama said.

She had some hard questions for the group. Mrs. Obama is a former member of the board of directors of a major food company, and she knows what she's talking about.

"When you put money into reformulating a product to make it healthier, do you then invest enough in marketing that product to kids and parents?" Mrs. Obama asked. "Or is most of the marketing budget still going to the less healthy versions? In other words, which products are you really selling? And what kinds of messages are your advertisements sending?"

The First Lady, in an ultra savvy move, noted the monetary advantage of healthy foods. There will be a market for healthy foods, she said, because she's making it her mission.

"As First Lady, this isn’t just a policy issue for me. This is a passion," Mrs. Obama said. "I am determined to work with folks across this country to change the way a generation of kids thinks about food and nutrition. So if you all create the supply, we know there will be a demand. And if you have any doubt about that, just look at what we did for the hula hoop."

Mrs. Obama famously hula hooped on the South Lawn last Fall, during the Healthy Kids Fair. Her last line wasn't so much a threat as a promise of a Great Awakening, food style. The more the First Lady talks up good food around the country, the more people's awareness will be raised. The more conversions she'll get. And the more the demand for unhealthy food will decline.

Mrs. Obama is a magnetic presence, and a memorable speaker. And the fact that she willingly admits that French fries are her favorite food--and that she has a husband who now has health problems from his diet--makes her all the more relatable. In recent times, no individual has been able to discuss cutting-edge food issues--food security, food access, removing chemicals and excess ingredients, school lunches, altering advertising to the most vulnerable population, dramatic changes to all of these through coordinated, locally specific action--all of which should actually be no brainers at this point in the progress of the culture--and make these seem not like the province of elitists, but the concern of the preponderance of the citizenry. They've never been discussed, as a seamless platform, by a First Lady. Plus Mrs. Obama can tell a good joke, even when she's channeling Jonathan Edwards. It's more than time for another Great Awakening, food style, and Mrs. Obama is messaging it.

The First Lady closed simply and poignantly.

"Today, with the issue of childhood obesity, we all face a similar opportunity. And you face it not just as food industry leaders, but you face it as parents who love your kids and as citizens who love this nation," Mrs. Obama said. "In the end, I am hopeful that you will choose to make the changes that we need not just because they’re good for your company, but because they’re good for our country."

As noted above, Mrs. Obama--and her mission--got a standing ovation when she was done speaking. This week marks the one-year anniversary of the groundbreaking for the White House Kitchen Garden, which is ground zero for the start of the First Lady's healthy food campaign. It's a long, long way from there to here, in a single year.

The GMA response was rapid. Scott Faber, GMA's vice president for federal affairs, lauded the First Lady, and told media after Mrs. Obama's speech, "We never had this type of leadership from the White House."

Faber recently testified before Congress for a hearing on school lunch issues. "Consumers are demanding more and more healthy choices," he said. "Our industry will do our part by changing the way we make and market our foods."

GMA points to changes in 10,000 food products in the last few years as proof of activism. Sounds like a lot? It's not. The food industry is a $2.7 trillion dollar enterprise, with millions of products available to consumers.

The transcript of Mrs. Obama's remarks is here.

Visit the Let's Move! website at


This morning, PepsiCo didn't even wait for Mrs. Obama to take the stage at the Hyatt before zooming ahead of the rest of the conglomerate food crowd and making a policy announcement that not only makes it an industry leader, but which also illustrates Mrs. Obama's wide reach of influence. CEO Indra Nooyi notified the world that her massive corporation is voluntarily adopting a new global policy to stop sales of full-sugar soft drinks to primary and secondary schools by 2012. This is in part a response to the fact that the company has been criticized for sending its unhealthy fare to foreign shores simultaneous with reducing soda sales in America, but it's still a pathbreaker. Under Nooyi's guidance, PepsiCo has divested itself of its most unhealthy food brands in the last few years. And as noted here before, Nooyi is a White House insider, and serves on a Treasury advisory board. But she's also leading by example.

*Since the launch of Let's Move!, Mrs. Obama has taken the campaign to the nation's mayors, to America's governors, to the national PTA, to school food professionals, to Philadelphia and to Mississippi. She's wooed the tech industry. She's played soccer with kids to encourage fitness. She's got an Academy Award winning actress promoting her cause. On Monday, she debuted in Newsweek magazine, with her first published essay on Let's Move!.

Videos created for Let's Move: A White House video about the launch of Let's Move! is here. The First Lady stars in a White House video about food deserts here. Mrs. Obama's Let's Move! rally in Jackson, Mississippi is featured in this White House video. The White House video of Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour praising Mrs. Obama's campaign is here. The White House video of President Obama signing the memo creating a Task Force on Child Obesity is here. A White House video of a mini-summit on child obesity, featuring Mrs. Obama, the Surgeon General, and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is here.

*Top photo by Samantha Appleton/White House; others by Reuters