WASHINGTON — Anti-obesity efforts by 48 companies, including Wal-Mart Stores and Walgreen, have led to more fresh foods in poor neighborhoods, reduced soda consumption and a jump in vegetable sales, a U.S. report shows.
Pinnacle Foods saw a two-month sales increase for its Birds Eye frozen vegetables last year during a $2 million marketing push on the Nickelodeon channel, part of an initiative related to first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign. The vegetable sales were among the actions highlighted in a report Thursday by the Partnership for a Healthier America on government alliances started in 2010 with the food industry.
President Barack Obama, led by his wife’s initiative, has raised nutrition standards in public schools and sought to persuade businesses to voluntarily take steps to combat obesity. While Birds Eye can be counted as a success, goals such as Wal-Mart’s pledge to open hundreds of stores selling fresh produce in underserved urban neighborhoods are incomplete.
“We’ll see if the changes that are coming about make a meaningful dent in the obesity problem,” said Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. “If the changes don’t come about or aren’t meaningful, government is going to have to interact with the industry in a different way.”
Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, has completed 53 of at least 275 stores it promised to build or renovate in or near “food deserts” by July 2016, according to the Partnership report.
Andrea Thomas, senior vice president for sustainability at Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart, said the Partnership’s data only recorded stores opened by August. As of January, 86 food desert stores were complete, including one in Springfield, Mo., that Michelle Obama toured last week, Thomas said.
“We’re on track and we’re excited about the progress that we’re making,” she said.
Sam Kass, an assistant White House chef and senior policy adviser for Obama’s Healthy Food Initiatives, said Wal-Mart is ahead of where he thought it would be at this time.
“We’re not concerned about any of the progress that’s being made; in fact, we’re really excited by that report,” Kass said in a telephone interview. The new Wal-Mart store in Missouri means “families don’t have to decide, ‘am I going to make a choice on price or am I going to make a choice about what’s healthier for my kids.’”
About 78 million U.S. adults, about a third of the population, and 12.5 million children were obese in 2009-2010, according to a January 2012 government report.
The first lady has made the eradication of food deserts a central part of her “Let’s Move!” campaign. About 23.5 million Americans live in low-income areas that are more than 1 mile from a supermarket, according to Obama’s Healthy Food Financing Initiative. Food deserts are defined by the U.S. Agriculture Department as urban areas that aren’t within 1 mile of a grocery store or rural areas at least 10 miles from a store.
Walgreen, the largest U.S. drugstore chain, has added fruits and vegetables to 37 stores in or near food deserts, or 3.7 percent of its commitment, according to the report. Walgreen told the Partnership the company added the foods to 50 stores, including 14 that aren’t near USDA-designated deserts.
“We remain committed to reaching the goal of 1,000 food oasis stores by 2016,” Michael Polzin, a spokesman for the Deerfield, Ill.-based company, said in a phone interview. “It’s not something we can flip a switch on and offer in our stores overnight. It does take some time to develop that supply chain and develop the offering.”
A little more than a year after her husband became president in 2009, Michelle Obama began using her position as first lady to try to end childhood obesity within a generation. She began lobbying companies to make products healthier, labels easier to read and limit marketing to children.
PepsiCo Inc. pledged to stop selling full-sugar soft drinks in schools, Kraft Foods Group Inc. said it would further reduce the sodium content of its products and Walt Disney Co. moved to make food and beverage advertising to kids on its TV networks and radio stations meet new nutritional standards by 2015.
The Partnership, a nonprofit outgrowth of Obama’s campaign, is talking with health research foundations about studying whether the changes have led to reductions in obesity, Lawrence Soler, the group’s chief executive officer, said in an interview. Collaborating with industry, rather than trying to legislate or regulate, may be the best tactic, he said.
“Anytime you can get someone to voluntarily work with you on change or on an initiative, things often happen faster,” he said.
Bright Horizons Family Solutions Inc., the provider of employer-sponsored child care that sold shares to the public in January, eliminated fried food from 80 percent of day care centers and sugary drinks from them all, the Partnership said in its report. The Watertown, Mass.-based company also cut the amount of time children can spend on computers in 94 percent of its centers to one hour a day or less, and provides at least one hour of physical activity in 93 percent of its facilities, the report shows.
“This is something that’s just vitally important to the well-being of children and we’re on board with it,” Susan Brenner, senior vice president for education at Bright Horizons, said in a phone interview.
Bright Horizons’ changes “are quite significant,” said Brownell, the Yale professor who was hired by the Partnership to verify the company’s claims. “Score one for the good guys.”
Pinnacle Foods, a closely held company based in Parsippany, N.J., said its two-month jump in Birds Eye frozen vegetable sales spurred another advertising push. Sally Genster Robling, president of the Birds Eye unit, said the business will spend $6 million on the campaign over three years, and plans to introduce new products that were inspired by recipes children submitted through a Nickelodeon program.
The Partnership “is very much focused on, ‘let’s deliver business results while doing the right thing,’” Robling said in a telephone interview.
Companies won’t stick to their obesity commitments if they lose money on them, Soler said.
“They don’t see this as a philanthropic approach, they see this as a good business decision,” he said in an interview. “That’s how this is going to be sustainable.”