Thursday, June 30, 2011

Sam Kass Keynotes Obesity Conference, Pushes Importance of Private Sector For Let's Move!

San Diego: Kass tells crowd there will be no White House campaign to ban soda...
Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives Sam Kass gave the keynote address at the 6th Biennial Childhood Obesity Conference on Tuesday, held in San Diego, California. Kass spoke to a big crowd in the ballroom of the Manchester Grand Hyatt, and discussed how they could further the goals of First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign. As he's been doing for the last several months, Kass spoke about the crucial role food companies must play in order for Mrs. Obama's campaign to be successful, and suggested the crowd do everything possible to support these efforts. Kass, 31, was recently named to Fast Company magazine's 2011 list of the "100 Most Creative People in Business" for his work getting corporations to partner with Mrs. Obama and Let's Move!. (Above: Kass, in tie, poses with conference attendees)

Childhood obesity “will not be solved unless we really work with and involve the private sector,” Kass said.

The conference is the largest in the nation of its kind, and was sponsored by The California Department of Public Health, the University of California, Berkeley, The California Endowment, Kaiser Permanente health care group, and Dr. Robert C. and Veronica Atkins Center for Weight and Health. About 1,800 attendees came from across the US for two days of workshops, including educators, public-health officials, dietitians, health-care providers and academics.

Food corporations should get credit, not criticism for joining Let's Move!...
“We need to redefine who we deem to be stakeholders," Kass said of the White House efforts to work with all comers. To date that includes a massive coalition of grassroots groups, as well as the food industry, everyone from global soft drink corporations such as PepsiCo and Coca Cola, to companies that produce processed foods, such as Campbell Soups, ConAgra, Sara Lee, and Kraft, to name a few that have pledged support. (Above: Kass during his remarks)

"We need to think outside the box and welcome all serious parties who want to come to the table," Kass said.

Mrs. Obama has been criticized for her industry friendly approach; a frequent criticism is that the White Hosue approach is too lenient, and that major food makers, which have pledged to do things like eliminate more than a trillion calories from the US foodchain, are just paying lip service Let's Move!. The Walmart partnership, though unprecedented in the history of any campaign run by a First Lady, has also been chastised. Kass defended the White House approach, and explained a bit of business psychology to the crowd.

Food companies should be given credit when they offer to make improvements, even if those efforts fall short of high expectations, Kass said.

If companies go “70 percent of the way" and "they get creamed for not going 100 percent of the way,” those companies won’t have an incentive to make their products healthier, Kass said.

Both Kass and Mrs. Obama have spent a lot of time trying to convince food companies that offering healthier foods can be a boost for the bottom line, and that consumers actually want healthier options. Walmart joining the campaign was a huge achievement in terms of getting other companies to believe this. Still, Kass was sanguine about what's gone on to date.

"We are gaining real momentum, but we have a long, long way to go," he said.

As he encouraged the audience to get involved, Kass echoed something the First Lady frequently says about childhood obesity: It can’t be solved with “a piece of legislation” or “a presidential decree.”

"It will take the work and leadership of people like you," Kass said.

Kass also praised the new MyPlate food icon, saying USDA's old Food Pyramid was confusing and "a turn off," and he spoke about the importance of gardens for child nutrition education.

No White House campaign to ban soda: Kass suggested the crowd choose a single messaging strategy to focus on, and he also declined to bash soda and soda companies. When asked by an audience member about the possibility of a White House campaign to ban soda from America's dinner tables, Kass was firm. Don't expect that to happen; soda isn't the lone cause of America's obesity problem, he said.

“This issue is not caused by one drink,” Kass said. “It’s about a much broader food landscape.”

Focusing on one food item doesn’t bring a comprehensive solution to a complex problem, Kass said.

The major soda corporations have made exactly this argument, though the consumption of soda has been repeatedly identified in studies as a factor in obesity. And placing a "sin tax" on soda has been proposed in a number of major metropolitan areas,  in an attempt to discourage consumption. Mrs. Obama herself has routinely suggested that water is preferable to soda and sugary beverages.

Dr. Robert K. Ross, CEO of The California Endowment, also spoke at the conference, and introduced Kass.  Ross' multi-billion dollar foundation has thrown major support behind Let's Move!, and he told Obama Foodorama that touring Mrs. Obama's South Lawn Kitchen Garden with Kass during a White House visit in 2010 was what convinced him that the First Lady was serious about her efforts to take on childhood obesity.  Ross was at the White House to meet with top aides, and he was initially dubious about meeting a chef, he said, but Kass quickly changed his mind. (Above: Kass and Ross at the conference)

"It was the best fifteen minutes I've ever spent," Ross said. "That's when I understood that the First Lady had a real interest in this issue. Sam was telling me about all the battles they had to fight to get the garden going, and I thought--wait a minute, they really are serious--this isn't just show and tell."

Ross told the conference audience his story about meeting Kass at the White House, too.

"I don’t know if it was a man crush," Ross said, to laughter from the crowd. "This guy was not just a cook. He had a vision and a passion, and I was floored by his knowledge of public policy issues."

"We connected, Sam," Ross told Kass from the stage.

The California Endowment to became a charter member of Partnership For A Healthier America, the bi-partisan non-profit that was founded to continue and monitor the work of Let's Move!. The California Endowment is investing $1 billion over ten years in 14 communities across California, under the Building Healthy Communities initiative, which includes Let's Move! projects like building community and school gardens and creating safe outdoor play areas and walking routes, as well as other initiatives.

Above: Kass gets interviewed by Yohan Callan, as other attendees wait to speak to him.  Kass was mobbed with requests for photos, and graciously obliged.

*Photos from 6th Biennial Childhood Obesity Conference