Michelle Obama launches kids food company, challenges industry to do better

The launch marks a high-profile, if unconventional, return to food and nutrition issues for Obama, who made healthy eating and tackling childhood obesity one of her signature issues during the Obama administration. 

A photo of former first lady Michelle Obama speaking on stage with a large display of the Nutrition Facts label to her right.

Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy.

Michelle Obama is jumping back into a familiar role: Putting pressure on food industry leaders to make healthier products. But this time, she’s also joining them.

The former first lady today announced that she’s co-founded PLEZi Nutrition, a new public benefit company that says it is on “a mission to create higher standards for how the U.S. makes and markets food and beverages for kids, leading with nutrition, taste, and truth.” 

“I’m proud to announce the national launch of a company designed not just to provide better products, but to jumpstart a race to the top that will transform the entire food industry,” Obama said at the Wall Street Journal’s Future of Everything Festival in New York, per prepared remarks.

The launch marks a high-profile, if unconventional, return to food and nutrition issues for Obama, who made healthy eating and tackling childhood obesity one of her signature issues during the Obama administration. 

“Sadly, I watched as children’s health yo-yo’d up and down the government’s list of priorities, depending on which party won the White House,” Obama said. 

“I winced when I saw the latest guidance for the medical community that came out a couple months ago – that in addition to eating healthier and being active, doctors are now being advised to consider medication and surgery for kids over 12 when lifestyle changes aren’t enough,” Obama added. “If that’s not enough to convince us that we need to do more, then what is?” 

The details: PLEZi is initially launching with a beverage line to compete with sugar-sweetened beverages like soda and sports drinks, as well as 100% fruit juices that are popular with children. The kids’ drinks are marketed as having 75 percent less sugar than fruit juices and containing fiber and nutrients like potassium, magnesium and zinc. The products – aimed at kids ages 6 to 12 – are already available at Target nationwide, at Walmart online and coming to more retailers soon. The company is planning to extend its brand into additional products, including snacks

“No one has really cracked the code and been able to compete with the big beverage companies and that’s exactly who we intend to compete with,” Sam Kass told Food Fix in an interview. Kass, who helped Obama launch Let’s Move! and served as a senior policy advisor to President Obama, will serve as board chair for PLEZi Nutrition.

PLEZi recently brought on veteran CPG executive Leah Dunmore as CEO. Dunmore has held leadership positions at companies like Hain Celestial and Campbell Soup Company and once served as marketing director for M&Ms at Mars.

Obama is a co-founder and strategic advisor for the company, but will not be involved in the day-to-day operations.

High profile advisors: PLEZi also announced that it will have a “kitchen cabinet” advisory committee with some high profile names, including: Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, former CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; Emily Oster, a best-selling author, public health economist, and parenting expert; Christina Economos, professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University; Donna Martin, director of school nutrition programs at Burke County, Georgia Schools; Shale Wong, a pediatrician and professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine; and Debra Eschmeyer, former executive director of Let’s Move! and senior advisor to President Obama and founder of Original Strategies (Eschmeyer will serve as chair of the advisory panel.)

Marketing meets public health: PLEZi is pledging to spend a “sizable” portion of its marketing budget pushing public health messages (think: kids should drink water) in addition to promoting its products as a replacement for sugary drinks that are still popular with children and driving added sugars consumption. 

The company also said it plans to donate 10 percent of profits “back into the broader movement to promote kids’ health” with an initial donation of $1 million to FoodCorps’ Nourishing Futures initiative, which is “working to ensure all 50 million students across the country have access to nutrition education and free school meals by 2030.”

From outsider to insider: Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign drove a ton of national attention to children’s health and the childhood obesity epidemic during Barack Obama’s presidency. In addition to using her bully pulpit to encourage healthier eating and more physical activity, Michelle Obama led major East Wing efforts to enact a broader nutrition agenda, including an update to Nutrition Facts labels with a new mandate to disclose added sugars and passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act that resulted in updated school nutrition standards to cut salt and and saturated fat while increasing whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, among other changes. 

“While I remain very proud of what we did over those two terms, I’ve also realized the limits we had, even in the White House,” Obama said today, per prepared remarks. “I’ve learned that on this issue, if you want to change the game, you can’t just work from the outside, you’ve got to get inside – you’ve got to find ways to change the food and beverage industry itself.”

What’s next: I do not expect to see Obama appearing in ads or otherwise acting as a public spokesperson for this new brand, but I think it’s likely that the former first lady will be speaking out more on children’s health issues in the coming months and years. This effort seems to be two-fold – yes, it’s the products, but it’s also about the messaging. 

I’ll have more on this news and the reaction to it on Friday, stay tuned!


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