Who’s responsible for obesity?

photo (7)While I have long been inclined to think of American’s obesity epidemic as fundamentally a matter of individual responsibility — after all,  despite what has been called an obesogenic environment, many Americans manage to keep fit or at least avoid getting too fat through a combination of healthy eating and exercise — I’m gradually coming around to the belief that big food companies and the US government need to take some of the responsibility for obesity-related diseases, and for their costs.

The other day in Guardian Sustainable Business, I wrote a story about Lunchables, the fun-to-assemble packaged lunches aimed at kids that were invented in 1988 by Oscar Mayer, then and now a division of Kraft. I did the story after learning that a healthier and more “natural” packaged lunch had been introduced by Revolution Foods, a company I admire. (See my 2012 blog post, Healthy school lunches: You say you want a revolution.)

As part of my research, I read a chapter about Lunchables in a 2013 book by Michael Moss, a New York Times reporter, called Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. I’ve since read nearly all of the book, and it delivers on the promise of its title, by showing how big food companies, notably Kraft, Kellogg’s, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, formulated their products with unhealthy ingredients, employed the world’s best food scientists to figure out how to get people to consume more of them, and then marketed them in ways that were often calculated to deceive. For example, they used unrealistic portion sizes on nutrition labels, or added a very small amount of fruit juice to a product and then boasted that it contains “real fruit.”

The government hasn’t been helpful in this regard either, despite the well-publicized efforts by First Lady Michelle Obama. Farm bill subsidies flow to cheap corn and soy, used to feed chickens, fatten cows or sweeten soft drinks, and not to healthier fruits and vegetables. The USDA coordinates marketing checkoff programs to promote meat, milk and cheese. Dairy marketers “teamed up with restaurant chains like Domino’s to help foster concoctions like ‘The Wisconsin,’ a pie that has six cheeses on top and two more in the crust,” Moss writes. Americans now eat about 33 pounds per capita of cheese and cheese-like products per year, he reports, triple the amount we consumed in the 70s.

As it happens, Lunchables deserve a small portion of the “credit” for the growth in consumption of fat-laden cheese and pseudo-cheese. Interestingly, the product was created way back when to increase sales of bologna–which were falling as a result of health concerns about processed meat. It worked, as my story notes:

Back in the 1980s, health-conscious shoppers began to shy away from processed meat because of worries about fat and salt. Executives at Oscar Mayer, facing declining bologna sales, could have sought healthier alternatives. Instead, they invented Lunchables, the packaged, refrigerated, convenient meal in a box.

Kids loved them – they found it fun to assemble the crackers, bologna and cheese – and so did harried parents. But food critics were, and still are, appalled by the fat, sugar and salt packed into Lunchables’ familiar yellow packages.

Today, Lunchables is a $1bn brand with a persistent image problem – and it’s facing a new competitor aimed at health-conscious parents.

The new arrival is Revolution Foods, a small company based in Oakland, California, that has already enjoyed success delivering healthier meals for kids to schools. Last fall, Revolution Foods introduced packaged Meal Kits. They can now be found in more than 1,000 stores, including Safeway, Target, King Sooper’s (a unit of Krogers) and Whole Foods.

Will Kraft Foods, Oscar Mayer’s parent company, respond with better-for-you versions of Lunchables, or will the company stand pat and risk further damage to its reputation?

To be sure, Kraft has already improved the nutritional profile of Lunchables, reducing sodium, fat and calories. What’s more, the company is in a tough spot because people like foods with fat, salt and sugar. When companies like PepsiCo and Campbell’s Soup removed fat, salt or sugar from products, sales reportedly declined.

I’m not sure how to resolve what appears to be an unavoidable tension between what’s good for business and what’s good for the health of Americans. Despite the rhetoric about social responsibility that comes out of the food industry — this page about Kellogg’s “Passion for Nutrition” is a personal favorite — companies like Kraft and Kellogg’s and Pepsico pay people to go to work every day and sell as many boxes of Lunchables or Frosted Flakes, or bags of Fritos, or cans of Pepsi as they possibly can. Of course, as these companies are quick to remind us, they also offer plenty of healthier alternatives. Consumers do have choices.

So can we blame the food companies when some people make themselves sick by consuming too much of their products? Hard to say, but I’m less likely to brush away the question than I used to be.

You can read the rest of my story here.

RSF Social Finance: Making money, making change

Happy customers of Revolution Foods

Happy customers of Revolution Foods

If you have a few extra dollars in savings, and you’d like to earn more than 0.00001% interest or whatever it is your bank or money market fund is paying, and you’d like to support socially-conscious businesses, you’ll want to take a look at RSF Social Finance.

RSF Social Finance is a financial services organization of modest means (about $145 million in assets under management) that is bursting with big ideas and bold rhetoric. It calls itself “a leader in building the next economy.” It seeks to generate “social and spiritual renewal through investing, lending and giving,” Its mission is to “transform the way the world works with money.”

Whew. What’s going on here?

To find out, I visited RSF Social Finance’s offices in the Presidio complex in San Francisco last week to talk with Don Shaffer, the organization’s president and CEO.

At the simplest level, RSF looks and acts very much like a bank: Its flagship product, the Social Investment Fund, takes deposits and makes loans to so-called social enterprises, a term that’s widely (and often carelessly) thrown around to describe businesses or nonprofits whose intention is to improve society and the environment.

Deciding what qualifies as a social enterprise is subjective, at best. That said, the RSF Social Investment Fund supports companies and nonprofits that, by all appearances, do great work. Among them: [click to continue…]

Healthy school lunches: You say you want a Revolution?

As business-school students at Berkeley, Kirsten Tobey and Kristin Richmond cooked up an unlikely idea. They wanted to tackle the growing problem of childhood obesity by starting a company that would deliver healthy, tasty and affordable lunches to school children: Instead of chicken nuggets and tater tots, they’d serve fresh vegetables and fruit, for well under $3 a plate.

They started Revolution Foods on the day they graduated in 2006 — it was a busy day, because Kristin went into labor that same day — and they’ve never looked back.

“We’ve been on a crazy ride every since,” Kirsten told me, when we met the other day at Revolution’s headquarters in Oakland, CA.

I reached out to Kirsten because I’ve been hearing great things about Revolution–and because it seems like such an audacious idea. Haven’t we been told that eating well costs more than eating badly? If that’s so, what hope is there for attacking the obesity crisis, especially among the poor? And, yes, it’s a crisis: Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the last 30 years and more than one third of children were obese or overweight in 2008, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How sad, and how unnecessary. [click to continue…]