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How President Became Student on Obesity Issue

How President Became Student on Obesity Issue

In recent weeks, Food Marketing Institute's Leslie Sarasin has spent a lot of time talking to a White House chef, and it has nothing to do with ordering takeout.

Assistant Chef Sam Kass is also the White House's food initiative coordinator, as Sarasin, FMI's president and CEO, explained to me. That means he's a leader in the administration's efforts to tackle the problems of childhood obesity and lack of healthy foods in underserved communities. At the White House, it seems, many hands are on deck for these issues.

Washington today is a battleground of partisan politics, so who would have anticipated that the topic uniting many in government, industry and other sectors would be food.

But that's exactly what's happened. The administration has enrolled in Supermarket University: Studying the food industry and retailers to see what works best, then consulting with the industry and others in attempts to replicate it.

Supermarket leaders are widely praising the administration for reaching out in positive ways. A Pennsylvania program is the model for the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, which proposes $400 million in investments to spur creation of supermarkets in “food deserts” — underserved communities that lack access to healthy foods. Michelle Obama, architect of the “Let's Move” program to tackle childhood obesity, recently toured one of the inner-city Philadelphia supermarkets that the White House has studied. President Obama saluted another Philadelphia retailer during his State of the Union Address.

Moreover, FMI is being consulted about retail member initiatives ranging from in-store nutrition education to inner-city supermarkets, and the association hopes to pilot programs with the administration, Sarasin said.

Industry leaders are talking about an unprecedented positive alliance building around these topics. “I've not seen this in my career,” said Frank DiPasquale,” executive vice president of National Grocers Association, which has long been involved in these issues and is engaging with the administration.

Food retailers and suppliers feel that presidential leadership can jumpstart such efforts, particularly given the systematic approach being taken. “The administration wants to establish metrics,” Sarasin relayed. “What does success look like? What will it take?”

While early signs are encouraging, it will be important for the White House to remain a student. Part of that is to recognize that solutions succeeding in one location or segment won't necessarily work everywhere, at least without modifications. Moreover, it's important to avoid the temptation to add new mandates without convincing proof they are necessary.

However, on balance, most give the Obamas an A for their efforts to date. That's well deserved, but maybe we'll make it an A-minus, just leaving a bit of room for improvement until it's clearer how things play out.

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