Almost everyone knows that Michelle Obama is dedicated to solving the challenge of childhood obesity within a generation. And based on the statistics I’ve seen, she has her work cut out for her. Childhood obesity rates in America have tripled since 1980. Today 30% to 40% of American children are overweight or obese. If we don't do something, one-third of all children born since 2000 will develop diabetes at some point in their lives—not to mention other chronic, obesity-related health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, and asthma.
To help meet these challenges, the White House Business Council and Business Forward, a nonprofit group of industry leaders focused on innovation, invited Mike Brzozowski of HealthEd and Susan Collins of SurroundHealth to participate in America’s Health & Wellness: a Roundtable Discussion. I sat down with Mike and Susan to find out more about what went on.
Jeff: First of all, tell us a little about the panel. Who was there? And what were they trying to accomplish?
Mike: The panel was hosted by the White House Business Council and Weight Watchers and produced by Business Forward. They brought together a broad cross section of people from corporations and nonprofit organizations for a roundtable discussion with Sam Kass, the White House Senior Policy Adviser for Healthy Food Initiatives.
There was a broad range of attendees, including human resources professionals at large financial services companies responsible for health and wellness initiatives, food service professionals, people from City Harvest, hospital groups, PR firms, a representative from the Beverage Council, Weight Watchers CEO David Kirchhoff, and of course Susan and me.
Jeff: What was one of the more interesting things you heard during the discussion?
Mike: One of the more startling things I heard Sam say was that the Pentagon views obesity as a national security issue. The armed forces can’t get enough qualified recruits because they are too overweight. What an unexpected and interesting impact of the obesity epidemic.
Susan: Dr. Olajide Williams of Columbia University also talked about the impact of obesity on children’s self-esteem. While we often hear about the toll on health, I think we sometimes overlook the tremendous toll on children’s emotional health and well-being—which affects them for a lifetime.
Jeff: What are some of the reasons given for the obesity epidemic?
Susan: The issue is not just about education. There’s a lot of information out there. But it’s about changing some of the fundamental structural problems that affect large parts of America, such as “food deserts.” For example, many inner-city neighborhoods don’t even have one grocery store. That’s why residents of these neighborhoods live in a food desert. They have to buy their food at the corner convenience store, fast-food places, and gas stations.
The White House is trying to get supermarkets to open more locations in these areas to give residents better food choices. Really, the issue requires us to address obesity on multiple levels—education, skill building, and access to safe and healthy foods, which is also known as food security.
Mike: Jilly Stephens of City Harvest highlighted this through the work of City Harvest’s mobile fruit and vegetable stands. She noted that when some young children first see packaged baby carrots, some of them think they are orange puffed cheese snacks. City Harvest has shown that education—such as chefs showing how to prepare vegetables, children taste testing, and parents getting very simple recipes and tips—has led to an increase in the consumption of fruits and vegetables among children in poor neighborhoods. Neither access alone nor education alone is likely to be effective. But combining them can make a powerful difference.
Jeff: Were there any initiatives that you felt made a difference?
Susan: Columbia’s Dr. Williams is leading an amazing initiative called Hip Hop Public Health, through which he’s teaching inner-city youth how to make healthy choices and influence their parents. He has assembled a cadre of hip-hop artists to support the initiative and to help get kids engaged. Then he leverages kids' indirect purchasing power to influence the types of foods their parents buy and eat. City Harvest is doing amazing work in trying to get fruit and vegetables into fresh markets in underserved communities.
Mike: Also the Children’s Museum in New York City is working with Head Start to teach kids good eating habits while ensuring that school cafeterias carry fresh food.
Jeff: It’s such a complicated issue. What can be done to address it?
Mike: Well, first of all, I’m thrilled that Michelle Obama is taking on this issue. Obesity's impact on our economy, through rising healthcare costs, is staggering. I think the White House can amplify the message through forums like the one Susan and I attended.
But really, this can’t be solved by government policy or public service announcements. An integrated effort with all factions of the private sector tackling this problem is crucial to its success. There needs to be a focus on coalition building between food growers and beverage manufacturers, food and pharmacy retailers, food service organization, hospitals, doctors, pharmaceutical companies, and others. They—we—all need to embrace this.
It’s the small changes everyone makes that will turn this tide. Having a national champion like Michelle Obama helps, but we need more celebrity focus here. It’s a national crisis and needs to be addressed as one.
The roundtable talked about the “sparks” of innovation that are occurring around the table and around the nation. The goal is to have all those sparks fuse together. And to use the stories of success and successful outcomes to create more sparks and more movement.
Susan: Too often, efforts occur in isolation. Only by gathering together all of these sparks of inspiration can we create a movement that all of us—businesses, parents, teachers, healthcare providers, children, chefs, and public health professionals—can push forward.
Jeff: How is HealthEd doing its part to solve this problem?
Mike: As a patient education and health and wellness company, we know how critical it is to provide patients, caregivers, and consumers with easy, practical, and motivational ways to modify behavior, in addition to providing disease state and medication management.
We continually recommend lifestyle modification programs to all our clients as a highly valued way to support their brand goals. It’s the right thing to do. We also develop comprehensive initiatives that focus on obesity. For example, we’re working on a family-oriented game that educates consumers about making healthy choices to combat obesity. We’ve already developed a game for a diabetes manufacturer that helps patients identify differences in carbs, protein, and caloric intake when they’re using a certain medicine.
The common theme here is engagement. We must go beyond just educating with information. It’s not enough. People need to be involved and engaged to tackle this problem. It has to be an everyday behavior modification regimen—a true lifestyle change.
Susan: With SurroundHealth, we’ve created a healthcare social network that pulls together health professionals from within healthcare and public health to share best practices, wisdom, and resources related to issues such as childhood obesity. Our goal is to harness the sparks for improving the health of children and communities—not just in America but around the world.