We’re here at the Partnership for a Healthier America’s (PHA) fourth annual Building a Healthier Future Summit in Washington DC - it’s amazing to see where the standout team of Mr. Larry Soler and Dr. James Gavin have taken this impressive organization – and still a bigger deal to see all that PHA is getting done with fewer than 20 on staff. Can we pause, please, for a moment to thank them? It has been incredible service to our country and to corporate America to help pull them into fighting the incredible obesity epidemic. To watch what else is happening here at the conference, check out #phasummit on Twitter – it’s been trending all day. Please see below for our top five highlights of the day and check out our preview to see what else the Summit has in store.
1. It’s been a day of leaders, with First Lady Ms. Michelle Obama taking pause to reflect on the changes over five years. As usual, she gave a personal talk here – we’re always struck by the extent to which she appears very unscripted. As she had over the past several years, she made it clear that she is working on childhood obesity over the long haul, even as she and President Obama approach the twilight of their time at the White House. With a triumphant tone speaking to the five-year anniversary of Let’s Move, Ms. Obama took on the theme of, “celebrate, challenge, and champion.” We were indeed glad to see her celebrate the success of the last five years’ progress but also put the emphasis on what needs to be done as she characterized this progress as “incredibly fragile.” She’s very persuasive on social media, having her #GimmeFive challenge up on Instagram almost immediately after her talk, along with the #PHASummit hashtag, which was trending all day. Very impressive! We’re inspired by the hard work – and also her acknowledgement of the tremendous challenge.
2. Ms. Indra Nooyi, the revered CEO of PepsiCo, presented on the company’s three approaches in joining this movement and commented on the need to be “sneaky” in making some products healthier. Although she spoke today for only a short time, it was a big deal to see her. On a high level, Ms. Nooyi discussed PepsiCo’s three strategies in bettering Americans’ health: i) reducing salt, fat, and sugar in products; ii) “dialing up sales” on “good-for-you” products; and iii) committing to portion control – we were particularly keen having heard her reference that last. Ms. Nooyi interestingly pointed out that the explicit marketing of reduced salt or sugar for certain products (i.e. soda) can turn away customers from consuming these reformulated foods – a sentiment we also heard from other food/beverage industry leaders in breakout sessions. So instead, she advocated for smaller, more gradual reductions in sugar, salt, and fat are supposedly as more effective. Overall we can see both sides and for sure, the magnitude for change in small shifts isn’t insignificant, which we hadn’t really considered in the same way before. As usual, one of the best things about her was her propensity to be as open and transparent as she was – we imagine this is challenging given the pressures of her business, her board of directors, etc.
3. In a star-studded panel moderated by Mr. Larry Soler (President and CEO, Partnership for a Healthier America), we heard the “state of childhood obesity” on its progress and downfalls as well as Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s areas of focus with its new $500 million investment. The great Dr. William Dietz (George Washington University, Washington, DC) opened the discussion by explaining that we are at a “critical point,” highlighting the prevalence declines in our youngest children. However, he emphasized the concern of a widening disparity as declines have only been seen in predominantly white populations – see our interview with Dr. Jim Marks (Robert Wood Johnson Foundation [RWJF], Princeton, NJ) for more on this, which is supremely depressing. In addition, Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey (President and CEO, RWJF) commented that RWJF’s additional $500 million investment was inspired by the current momentum and will be focused on a comprehensive strategy that includes efforts to help the youngest children start healthy, make schools healthy environments, and eliminate sugar-sweetened beverages for children under the age of five. We are very moved by this giant investment (now up to $1 billion over the next ten years) and look forward to watching how these resources are used and what approaches emerge.
4. In a breakout session on retailers’ role in the movement, Ms. Kathleen McLaughlin (President, Walmart Foundation) discussed several of Walmart’s partnerships as well as how the retailer can reduce the cost of fresh produce. Ms. McLaughlin highlighted Walmart’s work with the food bank system, committing to provide healthier foods to low-income populations as well as logistical expertise (i.e. investing in refrigerated trucks) to these transactions. In addition, she raised Walmart’s partnership with Humana, which offers any Humana customer a 5% discount off fruits and vegetables at Walmart – she noted that the retailer has since seen more Humana customers buying fruits and vegetables, an indication of how valuable such collaborations can be. We like this because it’s such a clear incentive to people, no matter what income level. Notably, Ms. McLaughlin also discussed how Walmart can work with players early on in the food supply chain to help reduce the cost of fresh produce; for example, she noted that cutting the costs of fertilizer use can make these food choices not only more affordable but also healthier. While this is likely a change that only retailers as influential as Walmart can execute, it is most valuable for the field to see Walmart moving forward.
5. During a Q&A session, Dr. Richard Black (VP of Global Nutrition, PepsiCo) fielded a question on the soda tax by noting that Mexico’s implementation of this “missed the opportunity.” As the policy taxes one peso per liter regardless of the sugar content, he emphasized the lack of incentives for the beverage industry to reduce the amount of sugar in its products – an interesting point in our perspective although we stick to the opinion that reducing overall soda consumption, as has been seen in Mexico, is valuable for public health outcomes. Ms. Caren Pasquale (VP of Social Commitment, Coca Cola) followed with agreement and commented that the complexity of obesity makes the targeting of one food or beverage unreliable and that “punitive behavior is not the best way to move consumers.” While we agree that there is no silver bullet solution to the obesity epidemic, we find these kinds of responses a bit on the narrow-minded side, given the correlation between soda intake and weight increase over the last several decades.
-- by Melissa An and Kelly Close