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FLOTUS: Companies and consumers share responsibility for the health of the next generation

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During the closing keynote speech of Partnership for a Healthier America‘s Building a Healthier Future Summit on Childhood Obesity in Washington, D.C., first lady Michelle Obama spoke about the necessary steps to ensure a healthier future for America’s youth. “Slowly but surely,” she said, “we are beginning to turn the tide on childhood obesity in America.” The first lady cited heartening statistics: Obesity rates for elementary-school students in Mississippi — the most obese state in the U.S. — have fallen 13%, and, “rates are also falling in cities … like Philadelphia and New York, and in California as well.”

Though these numbers mark a step in the right direction, Obama made it clear there is much more work to be done when it comes to improving the health and habits of America’s children. She issued a call for change on all levels, from the largest food companies to the harried parents who are responsible for getting food on the table each day. “At the end of the day, when it comes to the health of our kids, no one has a greater impact than each of us do as parents,” she said. Obama recalled her pre-White House life, when grocery shopping required a “finely honed plan of attack,” and making healthy choices only happened when it was convenient. “If the fruit wasn’t already prepackaged, you could forget about it.”

This need for convenience is even more acute today, with the number of working parents continuing to rise. Obama talked about the important role that menu labeling and nutrition facts play in parents’ busy lives. “The fact is that we can give parents the most comprehensive pamphlets and the most up-to-date websites. But we cannot expect folks to remember everything they’ve read days or weeks later when they’re in that grocery store aisle, or opening that menu, or standing in front of the freezer pondering what to make for dinner. Instead, we need to offer parents clear information at the moment when they’re actually deciding what to buy, cook and order for their kids.”

Several companies got Obama’s seal of approval for their recent efforts, including Darden Restaurants’ revamped kids menus; Birds Eye Vegetables’ marketing campaign featuring characters from the TV show iCarly; and Mars, Hershey and Pepsi’s promise to stop targeting certain products to children under the age of 12.

Obama stressed the importance of food marketing not just in terms of cutting back on the advertising of unhealthy products, but pointing out that advertising healthy choices can have a strong positive impact — on children’s health and the bottom line. “It’s also about companies realizing that marketing healthy foods can be responsible and the profitable thing to do as well. … And American companies can play a vital role to help make eating fruits and veggies fun and, yes, even cool.”

In a recent study that compared children’s choice of broccoli versus chocolate, “unsurprisingly, 78% of the kids chose the chocolate, and just 22% chose the broccoli,” Obama said. But when an Elmo sticker was placed on the broccoli and an image of a generic cartoon character was stuck on the chocolate, half of the children chose the broccoli. This story about the “power of Elmo,” and Birds Eye Vegetables’ success story about boosting frozen vegetable sales 37% with their iCarly campaign, illustrates how easy it can be to lead children to healthier choices, and boost profit at the same time.

With this type of nutrition-minded marketing, in conjunction with efforts from retailers and restaurants to make healthy choices more convenient and efforts from parents to seek out the most nutritious food, Obama said she believes we can live in a world where children are “begging and pleading, throwing tantrums to get you to buy more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.”

“With more information, responsible marketing, with better labels and product placement, with greater access and affordability — yes, that’s what’s possible.”