“The status quo cannot remain,” implored Sam Kass, senior policy advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives and White House chef, during his keynote address that kicked off the 33rd Annual National Food Policy Conference last week. 

Sam Kass, who got his start in the food industry while working at a Chicago restaurant, has spearheaded First Lady Michelle Obama’s food policy agenda.  He is a driving force behind the First Lady’s “Let’s Move” campaign that promotes increased physical activity for children and adults, healthier foods in schools across the country, greater access to nutritious and affordable foods for families, and heightened awareness  of healthful lifestyles to empower parents and caregivers

The status quo to which Kass was referring is the 1 in 3 children in the US currently reported by the Centers for Disease Control to be obese, the $215 billion spent on annual economic costs associated with obesity, the portion sizes at restaurants that have expanded to be 2 to 5 times larger than historical servings, the 27 percent of people ages 17-34 who are ineligible for military service due to obesity, and the fact that for the first time in our history, the current generation of children may have a shorter life span than their parents. 

Those statistics are just some of the reasons why this year’s Food Policy Conference focused primarily on childhood obesity.  The conference was presented jointly by the Consumer Federation of America and the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), organizations with historically divergent interests are coming to the table as partners seeking the same goal: to reverse the obesity epidemic in the US. 

In his speech,  Kass noted that the government alone cannot end childhood obesity, but rather it must find strong allies in parents, consumer advocates, and industry.  He said that now is the time to “transcend the discourse from blame to solutions.”

Some possible solutions Kass suggested included getting better infrastructure into school cafeterias, partnering with GMA and the National Restaurant Association to urge manufacturers to reduce calories, fats, sugars, and sodium in their food products, and implementing education programs for parents and their children about nutrition and exercise. 

Industry leaders told an audience consisting largely of teachers, nutritionalists, attorneys, food policy advocates, and health professionals that they are committed to implementing those solutions to make it easier for Americans to choose healthful lifestyles. 

Pamela Dailey, president and CEO of GMA,  recognized the important role that industry must play in building better diets.  “Everyone has a role and a responsibility,” she said. 

Scott Faber, vice president of Federal Affairs for GMA, echoed Dailey’s sentiments, noting that GMA has taken its role in ending childhood obesity very seriously.

Faber further explained GMA’s recent work regarding childhood obesity, which has included altering approximately 20,000 food product recipes to reduce calories, fats, sugars, and sodium, setting a goal to take 1.5 trillion calories out of the food supply by 2015, and working with FDA to develop front of package food labels that will be easier to read by consumers and widely accepted by industry. 

Elaine Kolish, vice president and director of the Children’s Food and Beverage Initiative of the Council of Better Business Bureau, discussed the Initiative’s efforts to regulate food marketing to children.  She said the Initiative aims to shift the mix of food advertising messages directed to children under 12 to encourage healthier dietary choices and healthy lifestyles.  According to Kolish, 17 companies have agreed to scale back on their food advertisements to children. 

Conference participants also heard from Dr. Janey Thornton, USDA deputy under secretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, who stressed the importance of nutritious foods in schools as one piece of the complex solution to childhood obesity. 

With the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act still pending in Congress and the current legislation set to expire Sept. 30, Thornton told the audience it is crucial that the new legislation be approved within the next few days.  She expressed hope that lawmakers will pass the latest bill and include greater access to food programs for children during the summer months and over holidays, improved nutritional value of food in school, removal of unhealthy foods from school vending machines, and culinary training for school cafeteria staff. 

Thornton rounded out the conference on Thursday by urging that “we must not point fingers and blame because that will inhibit change.”  Instead, she welcomed partnership among all parts of the food system to come up with creative solutions for childhood obesity.  “It is critical that we work together,” she said, “to do what’s best for kids.”