USDA’s Corporate Challenge
Health and Wellness
June 29, 2008
The nation’s leading corporations are joining forces with the USDA to help fight overweight and obesity among America’s youth. The new “Corporate Challenge” program, which launched earlier this month, showcases the role industry can play in encouraging healthier eating and physical fitness.
We talked to Dr. Brian Wansink, Executive Director for the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion about the new program and how corporate America can take a crucial role in promoting health and wellness among consumers.
What inspired the program?
Childhood obesity and nutrition are growing problems. We’re beginning to realize that nutrition education aimed at consumers may not be working as well as we thought it would when these programs were being developed in the 1960s. Instead, if we’re able to connect with consumers in the four main places that they make food decisions – where they purchase food, where they prepare food, where they work and where they play – we stand a good chance of tweaking some of their decisions and making them a little bit healthier.
What are the types of projects that companies can focus on?
Companies are focusing projects in each of the four target areas. For instance, in the area of “where consumers purchase food,” ConAgra is adding MyPyramid to packaging to show how a particular food fits into each food group. Their packaging will also explain the percentage of fruits and vegetables a consumer would get by eating a particular product. Retailer Publix is working with The Food Marketing Institute to install kiosks throughout their stores as an easy way to help consumers choose better foods based on what they like. Meanwhile, Subway is designing new combinations of foods, and Burger King, along those same lines, is designing a product called apple fries, which are apples cut into the shape of fries.
In the area of “where people prepare food,” companies are coming up with healthy items that are easy to cook at home. Del Monte, for example, has designed a product called Harvest Selections that contains 40% of the MyPyramid recommendations for vegetables in one serving. Kellogg’s is working on a web-based menu program to help people access easy recipes using specific ingredients. Similarly, Betty Crocker is working with WIC mothers to help them prepare healthy, easy recipes from WIC foods on their website.
There are other innovations happening in the area of “where consumers work.” Campbell’s is starting an in-house program to help employees eat better. American Systems, a consulting and information technology company, is designing a program to give consumers daily nutritional messages on their cell phones. MYTRAK is working with 3,000 fitness centers to take the MyPyramid menu planner and refashion it to be downloadable on gym exercise machines.
Lastly, the American Council for Fitness and Nutrition is launching an exercise pilot plan for reaching consumers "where they play."
How can food manufacturers and retailers benefit from joining the challenge?
This is a win, win, win situation for all. In the past, companies were blamed for being part of the problem. As a result, anytime a company tried to do something productive, their actions were met with a lot of distrust or condemnation for being self-serving. We’re challenging companies to look at the four main areas of communication with consumers and finally enable them to take credit for being a part of the solution.
What are your expectations for the program?
Consumers make over 200 eating decisions a day. If we can connect with them when they are making these food decisions, we stand a much better chance of reshaping the future in terms of solving these obesity and nutrition problems.
Also, the vast majority of food decisions are made by the household’s nutritional gatekeeper. We can’t communicate with everyone, but if we connect with the gatekeeper in the four target areas through consistent messaging we can influence entire families to eat better. To do this, we’ve challenged the both the food industry and the consumer electronic industry to figure out ways to help consumers make healthier decisions.
How does MyPyramid tie into all of this?
By partnering the project with MyPyramid, the most trusted source of nutritional info in the US, companies can really make an impact. MyPyramid emphasizes balance in the diet. Instead of simply telling people how many calories to eat, they can learn with the MyPyramid menu planner how much they need from each food group.
What are the implications of higher food prices on healthy eating?
Cooking with the basics can be a lot cheaper than eating out or eating convenience foods. This program actually presents consumers with a nice opportunity to reduce food costs.
There is a lot of talk about putting carbon footprint ratings on packaging. Do you think that these types of ratings are helpful or harmful in terms of encouraging consumers to make healthier food choices?
A decade or so ago, consumers expressed a strong interest in what we called green marketing. However, we found that when the price of something green exceed 1.5% more than the normal price, the majority of people were no longer interested. Companies will continue to experiment with different strategies in this area, but nutrition and cost concerns will always be at the top of the consumer priority list.
Along those same lines, how do you feel about in-store nutrition ratings systems? Are they helpful to consumers? Or confusing?
I have two main concerns here. One is that it’s not always clear what the underlying formula is for determining these in-store ratings. A second concern is that these programs could lead a consumer to pick only highly rated products in one category, but miss other categories essential to growth – like fruits, veggies, meats and dairy products. We don’t want consumers picking only the 10 snack foods with the highest ratings and think that they are eating a healthy, balanced diet.
How can food manufacturers and retailers sign up for the program?
Our initial goal was to sign up 20 charter members, and we already have 44. Of those, 40 of them are going to be sharing what they are doing with other companies. And we are already getting tremendous feedback from consumers. All companies need to do to sign up is go to www.mypyramid.gov and click on the Corporate Challenge button. In January 2009, we plan to hold a MyPyramid Symposium to showcase how corporate members are addressing this challenge.