Food Industry Rolls Out Comprehensive Anti-obesity Initiative

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Food Industry Rolls Out Comprehensive Anti-obesity Initiative

A coalition of over 40 retailers, nongovernmental organizations and food and beverage manufacturers yesterday launched the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF), a national, multi-year initiative aimed at helping to lower the rate of obesity -- particularly in children -- by 2015. Promoting ways to help consumers attain a healthy weight through what the participants call “energy balance” -- achieving an equilibrium in regard to calories consumed as part of a healthy diet with calories expended by physical activity -- the effort encompasses three key areas: the marketplace, the workplace and schools.

In the marketplace, participating companies are committing to expand existing efforts by changing products, packaging and labeling to make it easier for consumers to maker healthier food choices. Specific options may include product reformulation and innovation; providing smaller portions; redesigning packaging and labeling; placing calorie information on the front of products; providing shoppers with information and educational materials; and in-store promotion of the initiative. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) will support an independent, objective evaluation of the marketplace initiative, with results from that evaluation publicly reported.

At work, member companies will roll out new or improve existing programs to help their employees achieve and maintain a healthy weight. This may include providing calorie information and healthier food and beverage options in cafeterias, vending machines and break rooms; offering access to exercise at work via individual and group activities; implementing weight management programs; and introducing tools to track progress, such as health risk appraisals. The National Business Group on Health will evaluate these efforts, and best practices will be shared with employers so they can be replicated.

The initiative will expand the successful Healthy Schools Partnership to more schools in Kansas City, Des Moines, Washington, D.C., Chicago, as well as a tribal community in Iowa. Developed by the American Council for Fitness and Nutrition Foundation, PE4life and the American Dietetic Association Foundation, the Healthy Schools Partnership integrates nutrition education and physical education through a school-based curriculum to help students develop healthy habits. University of California at Berkeley, Center for Weight and Health will evaluate this portion of the program.

During a press conference timed to coincide with the launch, Lisa Gable, the HWCF’s executive director, stressed the need for cooperation among the various elements of the industry: “Not just one group can do it by itself,” she noted, adding that the undertaking would be an open, transparent process and involve outreach to community groups. “Hopefully, we can reach a tipping point on obesity, particularly childhood obesity,” she suggested as the initiative’s main goal.

“By developing and promoting common sense solutions that society can embrace with certainty, we believe we can help make a difference in the fight against obesity,” said Ric Jurgens, chairman, CEO and president of West Des Moines, Iowa-based Hy-Vee, Inc., and vice chairman of the board of the HWCF. “I know that the dedicated organizations involved in this effort, combined with the tremendous resources at their disposal, will make a significant impact in this critical area.”

“The stakeholders involved in this commitment recognize that by working together we can make a real difference on the obesity issue in our country,” noted David Mackay, president and CEO of Battle Creek, Mich.-based Kellogg Co., and chairman of the board of the HWCF. “We are united in an unprecedented, collaborative and focused effort to help children and adults achieve better energy balance between calories in and calories out.”

At the press conference, Mackay referred to obesity as an “epidemic” and observed that “our companies have been on the front line of this battle for years.” Emphasizing the need for “sustainable solutions,” he said that the extraordinary access manufacturers had to consumers in such areas as products and marketing efforts meant that the initiative could potentially reach “nearly every household in America” with its message of healthier nutritional and lifestyle choices.

“HWCF members are uniquely positioned to create healthier options that are appealing to children and affordable for families,” said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, M.D., president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. During the press conference, Lavizzo-Mourey characterized obesity as “the most urgent public health issue” facing the United States today, with 23 million children currently overweight or obese, or one in three children and teens. On a more optimistic note, she went on to describe the value of the new initiative: “Healthy food environments drive healthy choices.” As for the wide-ranging coalition membership, Lavizzo-Mourey was equally upbeat: “Everybody has a role to play in this.”

Hailed as a visionary leader” in this regard by Lavizzo-Mourey, Indra Nooyi, PepsiCo chairman and CEO, as well as HWCF vice chair and board member, called the occasion “a historic day,” noting that as a problem with many causes, the problem of obesity requires a solution with many stakeholders. Nooyi discussed PepsiCo’s workplace programs promoting optimal weight and overall health, in which 50 percent of the company’s associates currently take part, and cited such other pioneers in this area as Pleasanton, Calif.-based Safeway. “We have a unique opportunity as an industry to do better by doing better,” she said.

Dan Sanders, CEO of Lubbock, Texas-based United Supermarkets, spoke at the press conference about the grocer’s commitment “to fight childhood obesity in our communities and throughout America,” especially in regard to Mexican-American youngsters, who have higher rates of obesity than the national average and are more likely to develop related health conditions such as diabetes. To reverse these troubling statistics, United has introduced such programs as outreach to local schools, dietitian-led store tours and healthy foodservice options, according to Sanders, who proudly referred to his company as “a family-owned company with family values.”

Also on hand at the press conference was the charmingly folksy Craig Rupert, principal of Woodland Elementary School in Kansas City, Mo., which took part in the pilot program offered by the Healthy Schools Partnership, which he likened to providing “personal trainers for 400 kids.” Besides being “motivating and fun,” the school-based effort delivers quantifiable results, as in the example Rupert gave of an entire family that was able to dramatically improve its overall health by following the directives. “This is a program that works,” he concluded passionately.

Members of the foundation have already invested $20 million in the initiative, which will additionally include a nationwide public education campaign.

Besides the participants that took part in yesterday’s press conference, Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation member companies and partner organizations include Brookshire Grocery Co.; Bumble Bee Foods, LLC; Campbell Soup Co.; ConAgra Foods; Festival Foods (Minnesota); Food Marketing Institute; General Mills, Inc.; Grocery Manufacturers Association; Harris Teeter; Hy-Vee, Inc.; IGA, Inc.; Jax Markets; Kraft Foods, Inc.; Mars, Inc.; Martin’s Super Markets; McCormick & Co., Inc.; Nestlé USA;; Ralston Foods/Post Foods, LLC; Redner’s Markets, Inc.; Safeway, Inc.; Sara Lee Corp.; Schnuck Markets, Inc.; Shop Rite of Hunterdon County, Inc.; Skogen’s Festival Foods; The Coca-Cola Co.; The Hershey Co.; The J.M. Smucker Co.; Unilever; and Wakefern Food Corp.

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