Ten years ago the U.S. surgeon general set a goal for this country: Reduce the obesity rate to 15% of the adult population. At the time, according to the Centers for Disease Control, all 50 states lay just beyond that threshold. Twenty-eight were below 20% and the rest were somewhere between 20% and 24%.
Ten years later, the CDC has checked up on our progress, and what they’ve found is downright depressing. Not only did no state reach the 15% target — percentages increased across the board, to the point where now only one state (Colorado) sits below 20%, and nine are above the 30% mark. The CDC estimates that one out of every four people is obese, and that more than two out of every three people is overweight.
Figuring out how we got to this point isn’t easy. There are plenty of layers, and plenty of hard truths to face. The hardest for retailers might be that they’re not helping consumers as much as they could or should be. Food deserts — communities without access to fresh foods and produce — are a glaring reality. The marketing mechanisms behind unhealthy foods are much more sophisticated and widespread than those selling healthy foods. And even for those people who do want to eat healthy, navigating the modern supermarket’s maze of claims and pitches can be profoundly difficult.
There are encouraging signs, however, at the legislative and business level. The Obama administration has pledged money to help retailers build stores in underserved areas, and has made childhood obesity a special focus with the start of the Let’s Move program. Childhood nutrition legislation, passed just yesterday, is another step towards that goal.
Wegman’s, Hen House Market and other retailers, meanwhile, are funding initiatives like mobile trucks and inner-city farmers markets to serve urban consumers. Nutrition labeling systems also show promise, though many consumers report confusion at the way these systems differ from store to store.
It’s clear that, if retailers want to walk the walk on helping Americans slim down, they’re going to have to go above and beyond. Put another way, they will have to do what’s right, even if what’s right isn’t going to turn an immediate profit.