By Tom Laskawy
Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity initiative has kicked into high gear. The Presidential Task Force on Childhood Obesity released a landmark report documenting the scale of the problem complete with a list of 70 recommendations and a set of benchmarks, including the goal of returning the childhood obesity rate to its 1972 level of 5% by 2030.
And last week a new industry partnership called the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, which includes most of the major food companies, agreed to reduce the number of calorie in its members products by one and a half trillion calories by 2015.
These are significant developments and, as Marion Nestle observed, whatever scepticism one may rightly have regarding industry self-regulation, the fact that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation — whose credentials are beyond reproach — will be auditing the calorie cutting plan should keep industry shenanigans to a minimum.
But what will a trillion and a half calorie cut look like? In an article that helpfully explains how companies might go about reaching their goal – lower calorie Lunchables! Smaller Kraft cheese slices! — former food industry executive Hank Cardello puts the cuts into context: “[T]his is a drop in the bucket and represents only a 0.5 percent reduction in the 300 trillion calories available for Americans to consume each year. That translates to less than 1.5 pounds of added weight per person. Hardly enough to resolve an obesity crisis.”
That context was left out of comments by David Mackay, chair of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation. But he did express his deep pleasure that “calories in/calories out” is a fundamental concept of the White House childhood obesity initiative.
“Calories in/calories out,” means that balancing consumption with exercise is the key to healthy weight. It’s an industry mantra, since it leaves responsibility for weight control to the individual: count calories, get enough exercise, and you’ll be fine. Industry can offer a helping hand with programs like this one, but on the whole is absolved of blame or guilt for obesity.
Certainly industry desperately wants to be left alone. As Kelly Brownell, head of the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity said to the Washington Post’s Jane Black, “My guess is that they were going to do this anyway… The hidden motive here is to convince government to back off and not regulate the industry.”
The question is then, Will these impressive-sounding but small-bore industry initiatives make up for an apparent lack of political will from the Obama administration to force government to do its part? The Task Force report is full of things the government should do but has barely a handful of things it will do.
Meanwhile, one of the core commitments the Obama administration has made to address obesity — the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, which includes the national school lunch program — is stuck in Congressional limbo. The bill, already disappointing in its minimal increases in funding, appears stalled until after the 2010 midterm elections.
In essence, the Task Force report – with its laundry list of recommendations and benchmarks, most of which don’t start until 2015 and don’t conclude until 2030 – feels like an incomplete recipe. There’s a beautiful picture of what the final dish will look like but we don’t know the order or precise amounts of each ingredient, and the step-by-step instructions are missing.
I was not encouraged by a recent interview in Politico with the administration’s Director of the Domestic Policy Council, and chief architect of Let’s Move, Melody Barnes. When Mike Allen asked what the government itself was going to do to address obesity in the wake of the Task Force report, Barnes gave a lengthy description of the administration’s efforts on the school lunch program and its Healthy Food Financing Initiative, which would fund grocery stores in so-called “food deserts,” both of which pre-date the task force report. When Allen pressed on the subject, Barnes offered no other initiatives.
It may be unreasonable to expect the task force to have created a document so precise. But of the dozen or so recommendations that were identified as the government’s responsibilities, which will the Obama administration enact? Where was the call from the President for all federal agencies mentioned in the report to draw up a specific action plan in response to the recommendations? We’re not going to meet these benchmarks without government policy playing a significant role.
Industry needs to be a partner, but we are, after all, talking about the industry that gave us the now infamous Smart Choices label, with guidelines so slack that even Froot Loops could qualify. The same industry tried to pass off sugar-sweetened Cocoa Crispies as immune boosting. The same industry had the CEO of one of its most powerful companies refer to soda as a “staple food.” And the same industry targets children with billions of dollars in advertising so that it can take advantage of the “nag factor” at the supermarket. It is, in short, not to be trusted.
We have learned over the last decade, and to our great chagrin, that a change in administration can undo years of good government. The more that Let’s Move relies on industry good behaviour and bully pulpit exhortations from the White House, the more it avoids writing policies into law that might change the underlying structural foundation of the obesity epidemic, the more likely we are to risk falling back to old patterns once enthusiasm flags or, dare I say it, a Republican returns to the White House.
Drops in the bucket, even dozens of them, just won’t get the job done.