Wednesday, June 29, 2011




June 28, 2011 - Updated: 4:37 p.m. - Depending on your point of view, Sam Kass is either parroting the soft-drink companies, or he’s a realist who epitomizes the pragmatic approach to childhood obesity of his boss, First Lady Michelle Obama.

Kass, who rose from the Obama family’s personal chef during their Chicago days to Assistant White House Chef to Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives at the White House, was a keynote speaker on the first day of the national Childhood Obesity Conference in San Diego.

Article Tab : Sam Kass, a White House Chef and a policy advisor for first lady Michelle Obama's nutrition program, works the room at the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego.

Sam Kass, a White House Chef and a policy advisor for first lady Michelle Obama's nutrition program, works the room at the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego. Landon Hall, the Register>>

Echoing a crucial strategy of the first lady’s “Let’s Move!” campaign, Kass said child obesity “will not be solved unless we really work with and involve the private sector.”

It was more than a year ago that Michelle Obama launched “Let’s Move!” as a campaign to bring pediatric obesity levels back to 1970s levels. That would be about 5 percent, a long way from the 16 percent the level is now. One-third of children are overweight or obese.

The campaign seeks to bring healthy foods to poorer neighborhoods by adding more supermarkets and farmer’s market. But its initial successes involved prodding food manufacturers like Kraft to reduce sodium and sugar in packaged foods. Walmart also announced it had convinced its food suppliers to reformulate their products to make them healthier, as well as reduce prices for fruits and vegetables at its superstores that sell produce.

Some advocates have criticized the approach as being too lenient on the food companies, but Kass emphasized that companies have to be part of the solution. He told the 1,800 or so attendees at the conference luncheon — many of them dietitians, educators, public-health managers, academics and health-care providers — that “we need to redefine who we deem to be stakeholders” in the debate.

Kass said companies should be given credit when they offer to make improvement, even if those efforts fall a bit short. If they get “70 percent of the way, and they get creamed for not going 100 percent of the way,” those companies won’t have an incentive to make their products healthier.

He added that the first lady believes that the issue can’t be solved with “a piece of legislation” or “a presidential decree.”

During a question-and-answer period, an employee at Kaiser Permanente in San Francisco suggested the White House get behind an effort to ban sodas in hospitals. Kass said focusing on one food item doesn’t bring a comprehensive solution to a complex problem.

“This issue is not caused by one drink,” Kass said, echoing arguments made by the soda industry when a California soda tax was proposed. “It’s about a much broader food landscape.”

Kass praised the MyFoodPlate.Gov campaign by the USDA, a reboot of the outdated, confusing Food Pyramid. He said the public isn’t served by “conflicting sources and messages” on nutrition that “turn people off.”

He urged the attendees to coalesce around a single message. The USDA soon will begin offering quarterly messages surrounding the new MyPlate design, beginning with this simple precept: Fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables during a meal.

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