December 1, 2011

Partnership for A Healthier America – Preventing Childhood Obesity in Giant Steps

In the past couple of weeks I’ve had the opportunity to learn more about just what the Partnership for A Healthier America is up to. For being in existence barely a year, their strides and accomplishments are tremendously exciting. PHA’s efforts to date make me hopeful that perhaps we will reach PHA’s and the First Lady’s related, but independent, Let’s Move campaign’s, overarching goal: to end childhood obesity within the next generation. Yes, a lofty goal, but one that seems in sight with these important movers and shakers around the table.

Briefly PHA, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization, came together in 2010. Their mission is to “bring together public, private and nonprofit leaders to broker meaningful commitments and develop strategies to end childhood obesity.” They work with for profit businesses (think Wal-Mart, Walgreens, Bright Horizon’s (a large private child care company) (gather details about each PHA partnership)  health care systems (think Kaiser Permanente) and organizations engaged in the childhood obesity issue (think Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Alliance for a Healthier Generation).  (Gather details about PHA founders).

As a means to ending childhood obesity PHA’s goal is to transform our environment from one that is obesigenic to one where “the healthy choice is the easy choice.” (Ah, music to my ears!)

Their foci are on our kids – from infant health (think breast feeding), to schools (think healthy school meals and the integration of physical activity into the school day), to food desserts (think making fruits and vegetables more widely available and affordable). As I said, lofty goals, indeed!

Suffice to say PHA is off to a great start. At a small briefing I attended, Larry Soler, PHA’s President and CEO, shared that their agreements with these behemoth companies and organizations aren’t just lip service, press releases and/or big checks. These commitments have teeth, monitoring mechanism and progress will be reported in a public way. PHA promises to hold the organizations proverbial feet to the fire to meet their contractual commitments.

Details on a couple of the agreements which have been signed to date: Darden Foods, the restaurant chain that owns Red Lobster, Bahama Breeze, LongHorn Steaks, has agreed to changes on their kids and adult menus. On the kids menus: low fat milk will become the default beverage, vegetables are the default side dish. Illustrations on the kid’s menu will be of healthy foods. On the adult menu they’ll lower calories and sodium across their entire menu by 10% in 2016, 20% by 2021.

A big plus on these contracts, President Soler shared, is that companies have to commit to focus their efforts around their core products. For example, food companies must take action to make changes in their food products, they can’t build play grounds. This might be one reason why no food manufactuerers, per se, have signed on yet.

I had the good fortune of attending PHA first summit Building a Healthier America and heard from PHA leaders Chairman of the Board, Jim Gavin, MD…a physician who’s long been a leader in diabetes care, along with Senator (and physician) Bill Frist, MD and Mayor Cory Booker, who share the role as Honorary Vice Chairs of PHA. They along with a host of other speakers, from Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, President and CEO of Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and David Lawrence, Jr. who’s become passionate about the importance of preventing obesity from the early days of life, provided empassioned statements. (OK – I’ll admit it, Mayor Cory Booker wowed and energized me!)

More agreements, from Hyatt Hotels agreeing to develop healthier menus, to Kaiser Permanente promoting breastfeeding in their healthcare system, were announced at PHA's Summit. (Learn more about these and future agreements at PHA).

While all of these announcements are meaningful, the most impactful to me involves the one from ChildObesity180, described as “an alliance of senior-level national leaders from relevant sectors – public, private, academic, and nonprofit – that have aligned to reverse the trend of childhood obesity.” Their first initiative, Healthy Kids Out of School, sounds like a strange title, but not when you know who’s involved. It’s leading out-of-school-time (OST) organizations, such as Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, YMCA, National Council of La Raza, National Urban League, Pop Warner (baseball), US Youth Soccer and more. They’ll ALL promote three unified principles for nutrition and physical activity. Their mantra: Drink Right, Move More, Snack Smart. Kids will get this message in surround sound and their goal is to have their actions speak as loud as their words. 

While I did get to see Sam Kass, the White House Let’s Move chef-in-charge, I had to miss First Lady Michelle Obama who gave the final keynote, but have read it.

Yes, it was an inspiring conference. It left me encouraged. PHA’s actions, coupled with Let’s Move and hundreds of state, county and local actions are definitely moving us the right direction. They’re having a snowballing effect and the snow ball is growing.

With these kinds of significant environmental changes occurring where people shop, where people eat, where kids and adults play and exercise, where people seek their healthcare; perhaps the goal of ending childhood obesity in the next generation will indeed be met