Key Points Highlighted by Individual Speakers
- Through such initiatives as the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation and the Partnership for a Healthier America, food and beverage companies have been removing calories from the marketplace, selling fewer calories, and reducing the amount of calories Americans consume. (Gable)
- Companies can provide business processes and expertise for the obesity-reduction programs of nonprofits, schools, churches, and other organizations, yielding sustainable, integrated systems that operate cost-effectively. (Soler)
- Public–private partnerships focused on health and wellness are producing change in stores, communities, child care centers, schools, homes, hospitals, and other settings. (Soler)
Two speakers addressed obesity solutions in businesses and industry. Lisa Gable, president of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, described initiatives of the food and beverage industry. Larry Soler, president and chief executive office of the Partnership for a Healthier America, spoke about the opportunities and challenges entailed in forming effective public–private partnerships.
In 2008, Indra Nooyi, chief executive officer of PepsiCo, delivered an important message to her peers at the midwinter conference of the Food Marketing Institute. She noted that more than one in three American adults and nearly one in five American children were obese. The potential health consequences of obesity include type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease. Nooyi had an important message about childhood obesity to deliver to her peers: “This is an area where we can make a difference and should.”
Gable described some of the actions the industry has taken since then to become more active and engaged. In fall 2009, the Health Weight Commitment Foundation was created by some of the country’s largest food and beverage companies and retailers.1 It focused on three key elements: making a significant marketplace commitment, with outcomes to be evaluated by an independent outside evaluator; putting resources behind a consumer education campaign; and partnering with any organization willing to participate. As one example of the Foundation’s actions, the 16 participating companies committed to removing 1.5 trillion calories from the marketplace by the end of 2015.
In 2010, First Lady Michelle Obama asked the industry to step up its efforts as part of her Let’s Move! initiative. The result was formation of the Partnership for a Healthier America, which has brought together public, private, and nonprofit leaders to broker meaningful commitments and develop strategies for ending childhood obesity.2 The Partnership has worked with others, including Darden Restaurants, the nation’s largest restaurant company, and Walmart, the largest retailer, to provide greater choice and variety in their menus and on their shelves. “When the biggest players step up,” said Gable, “the impact of their efforts is disproportionately large and the momentum they generate is in the right direction.”
In a recent interim report to the Partnership for a Healthier America, the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation companies stated that they had achieved and indeed exceeded their 2015 goal of removing 1.5 trillion calories from the marketplace. In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service has reported that the total number of calories available in the marketplace has declined over time. And Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) experts, citing National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) data, have reported declines in energy intake in both adults and children. “This is a trilogy of achievement which everyone can be proud of,” said Gable.
Continued progress is within reach. A May 2013 Hudson Institute study found that lower-calorie products drove 82 percent of the sales growth among the food and beverage companies participating in the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, representing more than four times the sales growth of higher-calorie products. Of the 15 new products attaining annual sales of $50 million or more—a major benchmark in the industry—10 were lower-calorie items. Based on these data, the Hudson Institute recommended that companies emphasize selling lower-calorie foods and beverages as an effective pathway to improving overall sales growth. “In other words,” Gable said, “selling more lower-calorie foods and beverages was good for business.”
Gable encouraged more companies and communities to join these efforts to make changes in the marketplace. She also encouraged schools, parents, and other caregivers to commit to the cause. Given the wide range of choices people have about where and how to consume food, a holistic approach will be most effective, she suggested. In addition, activities being conducted in different sectors can be coordinated so that all are more effective.
A particularly helpful action would be for companies to provide their business processes and expertise to the obesity-reduction programs of nonprofits, schools, churches, and other organizations. “With these tools, we can create sustainable, integrated systems that operate in a cost-effective manner,” said Gable. For example, the application of continuous improvement systems that are prevalent in manufacturing to the delivery of nonprofit services could enhance success while lowering costs.
By aligning efforts, filling gaps, reducing barriers, and focusing on individuals and communities with the greatest needs, said Gable, customers can be given access to the information and tools they need to maintain a healthy weight. “Our collective effort is stronger than our individual parts,” she concluded.
Soler outlined some of the opportunities and challenges of forming effective public–private partnerships.
The Partnership for a Healthier America has made approximately 70 agreements with companies focused in such areas as food formulation, nutrition, access, and affordability. It has worked with Walmart to make the food sold by that company healthier and more affordable. It has worked with Darden Restaurants and others in the food industry to make healthy choices easier for American families. The Partnership also has worked in communities, schools, and homes to increase physical activity. For example, it has worked with the early childhood education sector to raise standards
for food and physical activity and with hospitals to ensure the provision of healthier options in food service.
One important initiative has been to bring competitors together to cooperate on healthier approaches to food and physical activity. For example, the Partnership brought water suppliers and bottlers together to work on the Drink Up campaign, which champions the health benefits of drinking water. The Partnership also has been approaching a wide variety of enterprises, such as health plans and entertainment companies, to promote obesity solutions.
Signs of the effectiveness of these approaches are beginning to be seen, Soler said. As one example, Birds Eye Foods, with support from the Partnership, ran a campaign to encourage children to eat fruits and vegetables. In the following sales quarter, the company’s profits increased even as revenues in the frozen food industry declined overall. “That is real life positive results,” said Soler.
Many challenges remain, however. Meaningful change is difficult, suggested Soler. Companies frequently see management changes and strategy shifts, and particular approaches sometimes fail. To ensure meaningful commitments, the Partnership requires signed contracts, transparent accountability, and results. “For every ten companies we talk to, maybe one makes it through our process,” Soler noted.
Also, the American public is only now beginning to appreciate the difference between a press release announcing a change and an announcement that involves third-party verification. As the use of independent verification grows, Soler said, public trust of companies also will grow.
Finally, Soler stressed that no single change will solve the problem, but the combination of many changes in both the public and private sectors, together with the use of new marketing and communication tools, will yield continued progress. Companies are taking risks in doing this work, but the changes can be profitable, and “if they are profitable, they are going to be sustainable,” Soler asserted.
Great momentum has developed over the past 5 years, Soler noted. The First Lady’s support has changed the way people think about issues of health and wellness. The public is excited to learn more and is bringing pressure to bear on industry to change. Companies are realizing that they can make a profit by making healthier options available. “Things are looking up,” Soler concluded.