Companies Join Efforts To End Childhood Obesity

Mar 14, 2014
Originally published on March 14, 2014 3:16 pm

First Lady Michelle Obama is giving the keynote speech today at the Building a Healthier Future Summit in Washington, D.C.

The summit, hosted by the Partnership for a Healthier America, is one of the premiere gatherings of leaders working to end childhood obesity. Several companies have announced new programs and marketing schemes during the two-day event that aim to getting youth to eat better.

NPR’s Allison Aubrey joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss these health initiatives, and how companies are learning that marketing health can also be good for business.


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From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW.

In Washington, first lady Michelle Obama is giving the keynote today at the annual conference of the Partnership for a Healthier America. That's the group that works with private companies, including food manufacturers, to find healthier ways of doing business. It was a hard sell a few years back.

But increasingly, some big companies are learning that marketing the good-for-you stuff can help the bottom line. NPR's food and health correspondent Allison Aubrey has been attending the conference. Sorry. And she's...

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: That's all right.

YOUNG: And she's here to tell us what she's hearing. But first look back, companies that have already made commitments in the past.

AUBREY: Sure. Hi there, Robin. Yeah. Looking back, I think that when this initiative got going, some of the first commitments we heard about were from big retailers. Wal-Mart is probably the best example. And back then, they pledged to do some simple things. Now we're going back three or four years, they pledged to do some really simple things such as make whole wheat pasta the same price as white pasta, work with their suppliers to bring down sugar and salt content by small amounts.

And these kinds of things may sound insignificant, but if the nation's largest retailer uses pricing structure to incentivize or nudge people to choose a healthier thing, whole wheat over a refined grain, then you could argue this is a start. And given Wal-Mart's size and its clout with suppliers, you start to see how the market play starts to shift a little.

YOUNG: Well, does it? I mean, that's the question. They can incentivize, but is it working?

AUBREY: Well, I - it's a question that's still trying to be answered. Researchers are looking at this now. I would point to a health care company called HumanaVitality. And they're looking at testing how financial incentives may sway shoppers. They've actually enrolled people, people who are enrolled in their health insurance plans. They're letting them sign up for rebates on things like vegetables and fresh produce when they shop in Wal-Marts. So these healthier foods become more affordable.

And the result of a pilot study of this concept found that it's effective. If the rebate is kind of high enough, if you get a 25 percent rebate, that would lead to about a 10 percent increase, more or less, in the healthy food you put in your cart. That's what they're finding.

YOUNG: Well, you know, that backs up other studies that show that if you literally give people money, like a dollar, they will make a healthier choice. But what are other strategies companies are using?

AUBREY: Well, marketing and, I guess, good old-fashioned advertising. One of the partnerships that got a lot of attention at the conference this week is a collaboration between Birds Eye - the frozen food pioneer - and Disney. Birds Eye announced plans to team up with Disney and kind of leverage the appeal or the power of these teen Disney stars to jazz up the image of vegetables. And the president of the company told me he thinks it's turning out to be a pretty good strategy.

He said when they first started stepping up advertising directly to tweens and teens and kids in this space last year, their sales went up eight percent in an industry that kind of has flat growth overall. So, you know, there has been a lot of criticism in marketing to kids in the past, but companies know it works. And, hey, if it's vegetables that are being pitched instead of fries and soda, I think there are probably far fewer people complaining.

YOUNG: Well, if these are future Justin Timberlakes pitching them, then it's going to work.


YOUNG: But just briefly, you have about a minute here, touch on preschoolers.

AUBREY: Sure. Well, another commitment announced this week at the conference came from Knowledge Universe. They are a very large operator of daycare centers across the country. And what they've pledged to do is to increase focus on fruit and vegetable snacking, increase focus on physical activity, things that you might expect. But interestingly, they're also moving to family-style meals.

I talked to their dietician who told me that this is based on research that finds when you put food in dishes in the middle of a table and the kids pass it around and serve themselves, not only do they eat a larger variety of foods, but they also tend to experiment more. So if the first kid takes the hummus and broccoli, well, then they're - there's a sort of copycat effect and others around the table are likely to do the same.

YOUNG: Fascinating. OK. Who are you again?


AUBREY: Allison Aubrey.

YOUNG: NPR food and health correspondent...

AUBREY: You got it right, Robin.

YOUNG: One of those days. Sorry. And take care. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.