Will the Partnership for a Healthier America Mark the Turning Point for Childhood Obesity?

We’re in Washington DC for the inaugural Partnership for a Healthier America Summit (PHA). The Partnership is a shoot-off of the First Lady’s Let’ Move campaign and is attempting to achieve what no other group has done so far – eradicate childhood obesity. From the PHA website:

PHA is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that is led by some of the nation’s most respected health and childhood obesity experts. PHA brings together public, private and nonprofit leaders to broker meaningful commitments and develop strategies to end childhood obesity. Most important, PHA ensures that commitments made are commitments kept by working with unbiased, third parties to monitor and publicly report on the progress our partners are making.

PHA is devoted to working with the private sector to ensure the health of our nation’s youth by solving the childhood obesity crisis. In 2010, PHA was created in conjunction with – but independent from – First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! effort. 

Nowhere on the website is funding mentioned, but in print material we have received, the following groups are thanked as Founders:

  • The California Endowment
  • W.K. Kellogg Foundation
  • Kaiser Permanente
  • Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
  • Nemours
  • Alliance for a Healthier Generation (founded by the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation)

(We’re happy to see that there is no direct sponsorship by major food brands, who have a very hard time when pressed to increase both nutrition and profits across their entire portfolios).

The summit event itself is sponsored by:

  • Walmart
  • Walgreens
  • The Mushroom Council

The summit participant list, to our surprise, is not inundated with food industry execs, but mostly not for profits, children groups and healthcare organizations.

At the summit yesterday, many speakers talked about how the obesity epidemic is a national threat, how our generation must meet obesity as its biggest challenge.  There was a lot of talk about exercise. There was lots of applause. You can see the full agenda here.

Multiple announcements were made by corporations as to their contribution to the war on childhood obesity.

  • WalMart:
    1. Plans to build or expand 275-300 stores (by 2016) in underserved areas, promising access to healthy fresh food.
    2. The retail behemoth is promising to reformulate “everyday packaged food items” to reduce sodium by 25% and added sugars by 10% (no timeline specified, no product list produced).
    3. All trans-fats in products sold at Wal-Mart will be removed from products by 2015 (this is potentially huge because it will affect many national brands as well)
    4. Will introduce a new front of pack nutrition label in Q2 2012 to help consumers make healthier choices…(oh boy)
  • Walgreens is committing to expansion of fresh food offering (what exactly?) in at least 1000 stores in poor regions by 2016.
  • SuperValu will build 250 Save-A-Lot grocery stores in underserved regions by 2016.
  • Several small regional chains have committed to similar expansions too.
  • Hyatt hotels will reformulate their menu to make a healthy kids meal the default option for families to choose.

Chosen to lead and serve as honorary co-chairs of PHA are Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, NJ and former Senate Majority leader Bob Frist. In a media briefing alongside PHA chairman James R. Gavin III, MD, PhD we asked them the following question:

“While we applaud your efforts and intentions, but you’re shooting darts and arrows at Fighter Jets. To quote the late Steve Jobs, you need to go thermonuclear on Childhood Obesity. Why not:

ONE Change the Farm Bill to make produce cheaper than corn sweetened Soda pop

TWO drastically limit marketing to children (No, Froot Loops is NOT a healthy cereal for kids)

THREE stop pretending that exercise is the main issue. It’s not. it’s too much Junk Food.”

Here are the answers we got:

James Gavin (PHA Chairman): Exercise is important. You cannot dispute that. A thermonuclear reaction starts with one particle. And some more non answers.

Cory Booker (Newark mayor, loosely quoted) : I’m not a DC politician and don’t have the luxury of “sedentary agitation” – complaining , talking, yelling – and nobody doing anything positive. I’m all for the big DC issues and will “march” on them. But for now, in my poor city, the small steps we have implemented are actually helping and we are seeing immediate changes. Like adding more recreation space for kids to exercise. We see the working mom without access to a supermarket and are addressing that by opening new grocery sotres. We ache to see kids stopping at a corner bodega choosing potato chips for lunch.  So I see the solution in small measurable steps. I’m happy that the corporations committed to PHA. Don’t hold your breath for Congress to change things. In America things start from communities (Civil rights started from people, not Congress).

The mayor’s remarks make sense – he is doing the best he can with what he has (BTW, it $100 million more than other mayors due to a donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg).

Former senator Frist, a former prominent DC political figure, did not comment.

In the evening, the summit guests got a taste of low budget cooking. Four top chefs were chosen to prepare meals based on food low income families could expect to buy with food stamps. The dinner came out at $4.50 per person and included salads, main dish with sides and a dessert. Not everything was delicious, but the salads were spectacular.

Today the First Lady, Michelle Obama will speak at the summit. Be sure to follow the live tweets from DC (hash tag #PHASummit)

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  • Gerome

    On your questions:

    Farm Bill — excellent! The cost of HFCS is a serious problem. Cheap calories. ‘nuf said. I think the real solution will be taxing this crap — I don’t see corn subsidies going away… it’s too big of a political issue.

    Limiting marketing to kids — hard to do in reality. There are always workarounds. Today, it was reported that McDonald’s, who have been banned from giving away toys in Happy Meals in San Francisco will now sell the toy for 10 cents and donate the proceeds to Ronald McDonald House. They win. (They will always win — tax the hell out of this stuff too.) There have been successes, but remember that a lot of advertising is protected speech. That old First Amendment thing. Let’s fight battles where they can be won.

    Exercise? Not a factor. I’ll contest that. What we should stop doing is pretending that there is only one factor that is the lynchpin to the whole problem. Junk food is not good for you, but frankly, if a person had energy balance, they would maintain a healthy weight regardless of where the calories come from. It’s not too much junk food that makes us fat. It’s too much food and too little activity.

    Related is the problem that people, especially kids have become disconnected with their food. Many do not know the pleasure of growing and consuming delicious food. Many have no clue how to cook or what constitutes a healthy diet. I think education about nutrition can be as powerful a tool as limiting advertising — perhaps more powerful. But this summit is a great start. Michelle Obama will be a great influence on this agenda too — just look at the Walmart initiatives. Those are huge.

  • Lanwench34

    This app is better than any food apps thats free, love the information provided on that summit. You could buy low cost and have the food taste great it all depends on what you buy.

  • Guest

    I wonder if Walmart’s promises are affecting Canadian stores too?