Hillary Clinton had health care. Laura Bush had literacy. Michelle Obama has obesity — specifically, childhood obesity.

Produce industry should invite first lady to speak

Chris Koger
News Editor

The first lady has been outspoken on the topic, more so since she introduced the “Let’s Move” campaign in February.

Speaking at the School Nutrition Association conference in early March, Obama recognized school breakfast and lunch programs as a critical component of the battle on childhood obesity.

During that March 1 speech, the first lady highlighted one of the White House’s initiatives: “We’re also working with the FDA and the food industry to make our food labels more customer-friendly so parents won’t have to spend hours squinting at words that they can’t pronounce to figure out whether the foods that they’re buying are healthy or not.”

The first lady is referring to letters sent by the Food and Drug Administration to 17 food companies, asking them to correct what the White House calls misleading label information.

Among the culprits are Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream and Pom Wonderful fruit juice.

Violations, according to the FDA, include statements on labels that claim the products prevent disease and are trans-fat free even though they contain large amounts of saturated fats.

She delivered the same message March 16 to a much different audience, at the Grocery Manufacturers Association conference in Washington, D.C. Much of the anti-obesity message has been leveled at the high-fat, high-sodium foods made by GMA members.

The media made much of the speaking engagement. My favorite headline said she used the occasion to scold “monstrous food multinationals.”

She didn’t pull any punches, to be sure, calling for a fundamental shift on the products the companies make and the information they present to consumers.

 But she did so with humor and was self-deprecating, saying she once relied on faster, cheaper, prepared ingredients and meals. It goes without saying, of course, her family doesn’t have to worry about food preparation anymore.

Following the speech, GMA chairman Richard Wolford, who is the chairman, president and chief executive officer of Del Monte Foods Co., issued a statement that the group and Michelle Obama have the same objective, and they agree on how to get there.

“Everyone has a role to play, including government, if we are going to meet the first lady’s goal of ending childhood obesity within a generation,” Wolford said in the release.

“We look forward to continuing our work with the first lady, the Obama administration and Congress to help all Americans build and maintain a healthy diet.”

Which brings me to something I first thought when Michelle Obama unveiled Let’s Move.

The fresh produce industry needs to reach out to the first lady. She’d make an excellent addition to the Produce Marketing Association’s Fresh Summit or United Fresh Produce Association’s Marketplace.

Sure, she’d be preaching to the choir, but it’s refreshing to hear the first lady — and by extension, the White House — plug away at the same message the industry’s been relaying for years.

As a bonus, think of the publicity it would generate. Dozens of media outlets reported on the GMA speech (perhaps they were hoping for her to draw blood).

Besides the need for increased consumption, talking points would include the industry’s strides in providing most fruits and vegetables year-round, the explosion in convenience-focused products (everything from salad kits to fresh-cut fruits) and the relative low cost of fresh produce on a per-serving basis.

Don’t let this opportunity slide by.

E-mail ckoger@thepacker.com

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