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How the Food Industry Can Invest in the Health of People, Communities, and the Planet

food graphic: apple and milk carton

How can the food industry help create a healthy and equitable food system? This was the topic of discussion at a special event hosted by Penn’s Center for Health Incentives & Behavioral Economics (CHIBE), the PEACH Lab, the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics, and the Penn Prevention Research Center on September 9, 2020.

“This conversation is particularly timely given the impact of COVID-19 on the American food system and racial strife and conversations about structural racism happening in America right now,” said Christina Roberto, PhD, Director of the PEACH Lab, who served as the moderator.

surgeon general event guest speakers
The guest speakers at this virtual event were:

  • Vice Admiral Jerome Adams, MD, MPH, Surgeon General of the United States
  • Kim Kessler, JD, Assistant Commissioner, Bureau of Chronic Disease Prevention, The New York City Department of Health & Mental Hygiene
  • Sandra Noonan, MA, Chief Sustainability Officer, Just Salad
  • Julie Greene, MPH, Director of Guiding Stars Ahold Delhaize USA
  • Jim Krieger, MD, MPH, Founding Executive Director, Healthy Food America: Clinical Professor of Medicine and Health Services, University of Washington

CHIBE Director Kevin Volpp, MD, PhD, offered a brief introduction to the first speaker Dr. Adams, highlighting the Surgeon General’s efforts to tackle the opioid epidemic, the coronavirus, oral health, and the links between community health and economic prosperity and national security.

Dr. Adams discussed some of the key elements of his upcoming report, “Community Health and Economic Prosperity.” This report highlights the role businesses can play in engaging with and investing in communities. Some actions that businesses can take include:

  1. Learning more about their stakeholders (as opposed to shareholders). Adams cited one example of a company that reached out to its community to find out what local health problems needed solving. This company is now working with civic leaders on increasing diversity and inclusion, building workforce skills, and developing a vibrant downtown area.
  2. Fostering a culture of stewardship, through policies, investments, and advocacy. For example, a company could consider hiring individuals who are often passed over by other institutions for lack of education, incarceration history, or substance misuse history.
  3. Joining cross-sector partnerships. “Collaboration is key to business success and improving community health and increasing economic prosperity,” Dr. Adams said.
  4. Using data to measure progress and achieve success. “We need to be intentional about tracking progress and correcting course [as we] continue to improve upon the investments that we’re all collectively making,” he said.

“We need to understand, now more than ever, that strengthening health and prosperity is a shared responsibility that happens at the local, state, tribal, and national levels and has to involve the public, private, and nonprofit sectors,” Dr. Adams said.

National Salt and Sugar Reduction Initiative

Following Dr. Adams’ remarks, Kessler shared about the National Salt and Sugar Reduction Initiative (SSRI), convened by the NYC Health Department. Her department looks at various strategies to increase awareness of healthy food and decrease overconsumption of unhealthy food. SSRI is a partnership involving over 100 local, state, and national health organizations, and they work to encourage major food companies to lower sodium and sugar in their packaged food products. For sodium, they set reduction targets for packaged food categories and did see a change in the food supply, with an almost 7% decline in sales-weighted mean sodium density. This initiative has now been expanded to address sugar.

Just Salad’s Carbon Labeling

Noonan shared that Just Salad, a restaurant chain with 41 locations in six states, is becoming the first US restaurant chain to carbon label its menu. Just Salad has been passionate about sustainability and already has a reusable bowl program, which Noonan said has kept up to 75,000 pounds of waste out of landfalls each year. Noonan noted that feeding and producing food for 7.6 billion people accounts for ¼ of human-caused global greenhouse gas emissions. To help address this issue, Just Salad decided to label its menu to inform its consumers about the carbon footprint of meals. In addition to the carbon footprint label, it will also provide context for how the meal compares to other food products, like beef. “Food labeling is a climate change mitigation strategy that empowers us as individuals,” Noonan said.

Guiding Stars

Greene discussed the Guiding Stars program, which helps simplify nutritional information for shoppers at supermarkets. One star on a product means that it has good nutritional value, two stars means better nutritional value, and three means best. This program not only simplifies the process for individuals to find healthy products, it also encourages innovation in brands for more nutritious food, and it rewards better purchases for consumers. For example, Giant offered discounts for their employees for healthier food purchases that earned stars.

Food Industry Accountability

Dr. Krieger, the discussant for the event, summarized some of the findings for the day and talked about how the food industry has handled corporate responsibility to public health and nutrition in the past. “Industry, in general, has quite a clear policy agenda to neutralize the public health, environmental, and other public interest policies it views as threats to its profits,” Dr. Krieger said. He offered a few ways to mitigate unhealthy influence in the food industry, such as:

  • Limiting industry role in public policy
  • Increasing industry accountability for its impact on nutrition
  • Increasing transparency of the policy activities of industry and its relationship with scientists, professional associations, and NGOs
  • Using counter marketing to highlight the dangers of unhealthy food
  • Adopting effective public health policies, such as sugary drink taxes and regulations of advertising labeling

For those who may have missed this virtual event, you can find a video recording (with audio transcript) here.