By Jane Black
Tuesday, March 16, 2010; 7:19 PM
Michelle Obama on Tuesday called on corporate food giants such as Coca-Cola, General Mills and Kraft Foods to step up efforts to produce more healthful food and then market that, rather than junk food, to children.
Speaking at a meeting of the Grocery Manufacturers Association on Tuesday, Obama said she hopes to see a fundamental shift: "We need you not just to tweak around the edges, but to entirely rethink the products that you're offering, the information that you provide about these products and how you market those products to our children."
Obama has made the fight against childhood obesity, whose rates have tripled over the past three decades, her signature issue. Last month, she launched Let's Move, a federal initiative designed to end the epidemic within a generation. Since then, she has wooed parents, children and policymakers, but this was her first public appeal to the food industry.
Parents, teachers and government officials are all responsible, she said, but the food industry has a special role to play.
"We can build shiny new supermarkets on every block, but we need those supermarkets to actually provide healthy options at prices people can afford," she said. "And we can insist that our schools serve better food, but we need to actually produce that food. And we can give parents all the information in the world, but they still won't have time to untangle labels filled with 10-syllable words or do long division with these portion sizes. And that's really where you come in."
Obama applauded the industry's early efforts in reformulating its products. Last year, for example, Campbell's lowered sodium in 90 soups by 25 percent to 50 percent. But the first lady warned that future action must also be substantial. She warned against tricks such as replacing fat with another no-no such as salt or adding a gram of fiber to a product already laden with calories.
"This isn't about finding creative ways to market products as healthy," she said. "As you know, it's about producing products that actually are healthy -- products that can help shape the health habits of an entire generation."
Some corporations already have voluntarily committed to limit their marketing of junk food to children. In 2006, leading foodmakers pledged that at least half of their advertising directed at children younger than 12 would promote healthful foods or contain messages that encourage active lifestyles. But Obama cited studies that 70 percent of foods marketed to kids is still among the least healthful. She called on the industry to use its marketing muscle to make good food cool.
"If there is anyone here who can sell food to our kids, it's you. You know what gets their attention. You know what makes that lasting impression," she said. "You know what gets them to drive their parents crazy in the grocery store. And I'm here today to ask you to use that knowledge and that power to our kids' advantage."
Despite the tough love, Obama received a warm welcome, including a standing ovation from the several hundred who listened to her keynote remarks. In his introduction, Rick Wolford, GMA chairman and chief executive of Del Monte Foods, said his industry is "an enthusiastic supporter" of Let's Move.
An industry-sponsored alliance, the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, plans to announce new pledges to reformulate many of its member companies' products as early as next month, said Sean McBride, GMA's vice president of communications.
"We have not ever had this kind of leadership from the White House. Changing the way we make and market food isn't enough to end childhood obesity in a generation," McBride said. "Now we have a leader to help make the cultural change that is required."