Thursday, November 15, 2012

Sam Kass: Private Sector Must Be Responsible For Reducing Childhood Obesity In America

At the Washington Ideas Forum, the Senior Policy Advisor says there's a limit to what government can do, and urges America's corporations to step up for child health...

By Marian Burros
Senior White House Correspondent

Washington, DC - At the first post-election discussion of First Lady Michelle Obama’s childhood obesity initiative, White House Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives Sam Kass on Wednesday offered little new information about what's ahead for the Let's Move! campaign, though it largely disappeared from public view for the duration of President Obama's reelection race. But the work continued on, Kass said during remarks at the Washington Ideas Forum, presented by The Atlantic, The Aspen Institute and the Newseum.  And it remains Mrs. Obama’s first priority for the next four years.

"The First Lady knows the very future of our nation is at jeopardy here," Kass said.

But he made it clear that while the First Lady will continue to act as the chief spokesperson and cheerleader for healthy eating and fitness, the success of her twenty-year-long initiative to reduce childhood obesity from its current national level of about 17% to just 5% by 2030 is firmly in the hands of the private sector.

"There’s only so much the government can do," Kass said.  "The heart and soul of the success of this long term is going to be the private sector leading."

Government "certainly" has a role to play, Kass said, in particular with the National School Lunch Program, which impacts 32 million children, but the private sector must step up.

"In the end there's only so much--not that much--that government can really do to solve this," Kass said.

He noted that "we love to think that if there's one thing that can change" child obesity will be reduced, but the reality is that it is a complicated issue that requires interventions across the board of America's obesogenic landscape.

Answering questions posed by Corby Kummer, a senior editor at The Atlantic, Kass recounted Mrs. Obama’s efforts over the last three years and said progress had been "incredible," though he offered few hard statistics.  Acclaimed DC chef and food policy activist José Andrés was ostensibly on hand for the "discussion," but Kass and Andrés had very different opinions about the nature of government intervention.

For those who have not followed the First Lady’s Let's Move! efforts, Kass offered a quick review, hailing Walmart, the largest grocer in the world, for committing to the Let's Move! campaign with a five year plan that includes locating stores in "food deserts," "dropping" the price of fruits and vegetables by $1 billion, and making "healthier foods" the same price as less healthy foods.  He also praised Darden Restaurants, Inc, parent to chain eateries Olive Garden and Red Lobster, for its major commitment, which includes making fruit and vegetables an automatic side and removing sugary beverages from the children's menu, as well as retooling menu items over the next decade.

Always upbeat, Kass pointed to what he sees as positive signs that American attitude toward food are changing, however, slowly:  A dramatic increase in the sales of whole grains; greater use of low fat milk, a decline in obesity rates is several cities; a 50% increase in farmers markets last year, he said. 

As the session came to a close, Andrés brought up the elephant in the room:  The relatively high cost of fresh fruits and vegetables compared with junk and how the Farm Bill affects food costs. Andrés believes that in order for the healthy fruits and vegetables to be more reasonably priced, either they must receive the same level of subsidies as wheat, corn, sugar, rice and soybeans or there must be the total elimination of all subsidies.

The President supports the elimination, Kass said, but departed the event without further comment.  The Farm Bill expired on Sept. 30, and the next version is the subject of an ongoing battle with lawmakers.

*Photo by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama.