Monday, May 17, 2010

Michelle Obama Gets Huge Let's Move! Commitment From Food Corporations

1.5 trillion calories dumped from the food chain: Public-private partnership to improve food products--with an emphasis on accountability
Today, First Lady Michelle Obama announced a major new commitment from sixteen food giants, for her childhood obesity campaign, Let's Move!. The companies, including Kraft, PepsiCo, Coca Cola, Campbell's Soups, Kellogg's, ConAgra, and Sara Lee, create about 25 percent of America's food supply, according to Mrs. Obama, and they've pledged to make major changes in their many offerings. (Above: Mrs. Obama during her announcement)

On deck is including more lower-calorie foods in product lines; changing recipes where possible to lower the calorie content of current products; and reducing portion sizes of existing single-serving products. The huge commitment also comes with a huge number attached: The food giants have a goal of annually eliminating 1 trillion calories from the food chain by 2012, and 1.5 trillion by 2015.

"This is precisely the kind of real private-sector commitment that we need," Mrs. Obama said. "So I am grateful to these companies for stepping out and being among the first to make this happen."

The commitment also has a first for the Let's Move! campaign: It's not just a promise. It comes with a big dose of accountability, because these changes will be tracked and monitored by the Partnership For A Healthier America, the non-profit created to continue the work of Let's Move!. And these results will be publicly reported.

Mrs. Obama shared her news from the stage of the South Court Auditorium in the Old Executive Office Building, joined by Dr. James R. Gavin III, board chair of the Partnership, and David Mackay, CEO of Kellogg's, and chair of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF). And it's that foundation that is the coordinating body for the private sector: The sixteen food companies are all members, alongside insurance companies, sporting good manufacturers, NGOs, and trade associations. The rest of the food giants that have signed up to move with Mrs. Obama are General Mills, Nestle USA, Post foods, Bumble Bee, Hershey, Mars, Inc., McCormick, JM Smucker, and Unilever.

Historic...and the world is watching
It's a big moment in the history of food politics and child health. The participating food giants own many of the most identifiable, quintessentially American and long-beloved brands, and they have now voluntarily staked their good names on this commitment, and publicly married themselves to Mrs. Obama's campaign. It's no light promise. And it can't be seen as part of a PR ploy to get in the First Lady's good graces--nor simply to avoid government regulation--thanks to the fact that there is a tracking mechanism to see if what amounts to major changes in food products actually happens. And starts showing up on supermarket shelves. Everyone has been invited to watch--and everyone will be watching, to see if there is success or failure.

It's a testament to Mrs. Obama's wide influence--and the seriousness with which her campaign is being taken--that all these companies have joined her. As she spoke, Mrs. Obama's Food Initiative Coordinator, Sam Kass, watched from the back of the auditorium, as did her chief of staff, Susan Sher. Other White House policy makers were present, too. Nothing like today's commitment has ever been attempted--or achieved--by any other administration.

The announcement comes on the heels of last week's release of the Report from the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity. During her remarks, Mrs. Obama noted that while it's an ongoing goal to encourage Americans to profoundly increase consumption of fruits and vegetables--a Report recommendation--the reality of American life is that many people depend on pre-made products, and so companies must make healthier options in order for her campaign to succeed.

And very soon, Mrs. Obama said, the food companies will make another step forward.

"They’ve also agreed to work with the Partnership for a Healthier America to come forward with specific commitments to reduce sugar and fat in their products within six months," Mrs. Obama said.

Lots more work to be done: Who will join the campaign next?
Who else will step up and join Mrs. Obama's campaign, now that some of the most high-profile food giants have really joined Let's Move? Because there are plenty of other actors in the food marketplace that need to make changes, too, in order to re-structure the American nutrition landscape. The restaurant industry is the obvious next stop that comes to mind. Today's commitment is a big jump-start start to what the First Lady has said will be a years-long project, but there's still plenty of work to be done.

"I hope that more will follow the example that they’ve set and step up to the plate on behalf of our children, too," Mrs. Obama said about other food companies. "Because as ambitious as this goal is to end the epidemic of childhood obesity within a generation, as we all know, it is achievable -- that is, if we’re all willing to play our part."

Food behemoths and accountability
During his own remarks, Gavin, chair of the Partnership, stressed the accountability angle of the new commitment. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, one of the founding members of the Partnership, will take on monitoring responsibilities to determine if the food companies' product reformulations are having an impact. To assess that impact, the non-profit will "support a rigorous, independent evaluation of how the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation’s efforts to reduce calories in the marketplace affect calories consumed by children and adolescents, and will publicly report its findings."

How exactly this kind of survey will be accomplished remains to be seen, of course. And this was not explained today. But it will be an annual survey.

Is it really as simple as calories in vs. calories out? No. But it's one more knife in the box to slash childhood obesity rates...
Before she left the stage, Mrs. Obama also said that she is "thrilled" by the overall multi-trillion calorie dump that the food companies have promised, too.

That massive number is where a bit of confusion enters the mix. The "overall" calorie reduction number is central to today's promise, because the whole platform of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation is that Americans consume too many calories--and that there are too many calories available in the food marketplace. The group has developed a strict formula for what it calls "Energy Balance," which encourages people to monitor the calories they consume and the calories they expend while doing physical activity, in order to achieve "an optimal balance" that leads to a healthy weight.

But conceptualizing obesity and weight loss simply as calories in vs. calories expended is a tricky business; some studies have found that this is not valid. The Task Force Report itself notes that many other factors contribute to childhood obesity, such as genetics; cultural, socioeconomic and geographic factors; sleep; education level; breastfeeding; caregiver education; hormone disrupting chemicals in the environment, etc. etc., etc..

Many approaches, for a deep, entrenched problem
Still, including the idea of "energy balance" as one approach to reducing childhood obesity will definitely help some sector of the population, which the Partnership's Gavin noted in his comments. He cited eliminating childhood obesity as "a cumulative result of many changes," and something that needs many approaches. The broad sweep of the Let's Move! campaign is designed to encompass a wide range of changes, in as many areas as possible. It also includes improving the federal school breakfast and lunch programs, improving food access and affordability, encouraging more physical activity, and making better nutrition information available to parents.

What's in the new foods? Chems? GMOs? Will they be cheaper because they're smaller portions?
Lisa Gable, Executive Director of HWCF, pointed out to reporters that the food giants' commitment is primarily for new products that will be introduced into the marketplace during the next five years, and said reformulations will depend on "macronutrients." She sidestepped a question about the use of genetically modified ingredients, saying this was information she couldn't share. And when asked when "commitment" products will be hitting store shelves, Gable was also a bit vague.

"You know it depends on each individual company," Gable said. "Some companies you're going to see a lot of new products introduced over the next year...We’ve got 16 manufacturers, we’re talking about a lot of products...."

Gable also added that the price point for food products will not necessarily be lower, even though portion size of food offerings will be smaller. That's not part of the equation, she said, but added that reformulating products is "a good competitive thing for them to do because the market is demanding it."

Related: A full transcript of Mrs. Obama's remarks, and a White House video is here. Download the full Report from the White House Childhood Obesity Task Force here [PDF].

*Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation officially launched last Fall, spearheaded by Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo. In advance of today's announcement, during the week of May 5, the HWCF launched three new websites to reach various targeted audiences with their energy balance message: This one is for the workplace, this one is for kids and schools, and this one is for parents.