Happy Friday, and welcome to Food Fix. If you’re not yet a paid subscriber, you missed a whole lot this week! On Tuesday, I dug into what FDA is thinking about food as medicine and sugar reduction across the food supply, and on Wednesday subscribers were the first to get the news about Michelle Obama’s new kids food company.
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Alright, let’s get to it –
Today, in Food Fix:
– Michelle Obama seeks to beat the food industry at its own game
– New York expands free school meals to 80 percent of students
– Major ag climate summit in DC next week
Why Michelle Obama got into the food business
Former first lady Michelle Obama did something big and very unconventional this week: She launched a kids food company aiming to kick off “a race to the top that will transform the entire food industry.”
“I’m here today because I still believe that businesses can and must move faster when it comes to our kids’ health and nutrition,” Obama said at the Wall Street Journal’s Future of Everything Festival in New York. “Because I believe there is a way to build successful companies and do right by our kids, that we can make products that are tasty and healthy and good for the bottom line – and I’m putting some skin in the game to put this theory to the test.”
PLEZi – a public benefit company which counts Obama as co-founder and strategic partner – formally kicked off this week with a juice drink line that’s already in Target and Sprouts Farmers Markets nationwide and Walmart online and more products and snacks in the pipeline. I get the sense that the ultimate goal is to be in gas stations, bodegas and vending machines, more than say, Whole Foods (though I’m sure it’ll be there, too). The ambitious play is to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Pepsi and Coke.
“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,” Obama said in her remarks.
Unprecedented: I don’t throw the word around lightly – it’s so often misused – but it’s safe to call this move unprecedented. We’ve never seen a former first lady launch a food company, nor any consumer goods company, for that matter. It’s yet another example of how the role of first lady is changing in the 21st century.
I got in touch with Carl Sferrazza Anthony, who’s written several books about first ladies (his most recent book, “Camera Girl” on Jackie Kennedy, comes out this week) just to make sure I wasn’t missing something here.
“It’s unprecedented,” Anthony told me. “The only thing anywhere close is that in the early 20th century there was both an ice cream and snack cake company named for Dolly Madison, who at that point had been dead for a century. Dolly Madison snacks were aimed at children – they were kind of famous for being the advertisers for the Charlie Brown specials.” (Here’s a montage of these promos for a real throwback.)
“But obviously [the first lady] was long gone and wouldn’t have even known what a snack company was,” Anthony added. (Madison died in 1849.)
The only other FLOTUS food biz example I could think of was Eleanor Roosevelt’s commercial for a margarine brand. Anthony told me that at the time, the former first lady was roundly criticized for this, including by those close to her. After her death it came out that the entire proceeds from the ad campaign were donated to a school in New York for abandoned and abused boys.
I also asked Kate Bennett, a top FLOTUS expert, what she thought of Obama’s move. “It’s uncharted territory,” said Bennett, a senior advisor at Invariant who previously covered the first lady beat at CNN. Bennett noted that other than Melania Trump’s recent foray into NFTs, first ladies haven’t really engaged directly in business. “I think it speaks to Michelle’s entrepreneurial spirit, but also her understanding that there’s a cultural zeitgeist that follows her and that she has a chapter after being first lady,” said Bennett. “She’s been incredibly business savvy since she left.”
As I noted earlier this week, Obama is not expected to be appearing in ads or directly engaging in marketing PLEZi, but it’s likely she’ll be speaking out more on these issues at a higher level.
Jumping into processed food: While there’s a ton of buzz around this launch – WSJ, AP and NPR, to name a few – there’s also a fair amount of risk and early criticism. Michelle Obama is joining the processed food industry at a time when processed food is under increasing scrutiny for contributing to diet-related diseases – a link researchers are still very much trying to understand.
It’s an interesting question: Is something like PLEZi meeting people where they are, or is it muddying the waters? According to CDC, nearly two-thirds of children consume at least one sugar-sweetened beverage per day. If something like PLEZi, which does contain far less sugar and some fiber, replaces a full-sugar soda or sports drink, I think many public health experts would consider that a clear win. But if PLEZi replaces water or plain milk or anything else that’s more nutrient dense, that’s a step backward.
PLEZi says it will promote public health messaging not only around water and milk consumption, but also the importance of fruit and vegetables. The drinks are positioned as a replacement for sugar-sweetened beverages and aim to help dial down kids’ expectations for high levels of sweetness. The company also said it plans to donate 10 percent of profits to kids’ health causes.
Reax: I’ve seen a lot of positive response to this news, but I’ve also seen some Obama fans on social push back on a few points: the products are packed in single-use plastics, the drinks use non-nutritive sweeteners (stevia and monk fruit), and, well, the whole processed food thing.
“I am a huge fan of Michelle Obama’s child nutrition work,” said Jerry Mande, CEO of Nourish Science, a non-profit, and former USDA and FDA official. “She has done more to improve child nutrition than any other political leader. I loved her remarks on Wednesday.”
“I agree that we need to solve the problem from inside food companies by offering delicious, affordable, convenient foods that don’t make us sick,” Mande added. “However, she has been ill served by advisors who convinced her to start by targeting 6 to 12 year olds with a flashy, ultra-processed beverage that may not be any healthier than diet soda and costs more.”
Fox News ran a primetime segment on Thursday criticizing Michelle Obama for the move. (This is quite a turn for Fox, which constantly hammered the first lady for being “Orwellian” and pushing a nanny state for trying to do things like mandate more fruits and vegetables in the National School Lunch Program a decade ago.)
Is Michelle Obama back? Back during her husband’s presidency, Obama drove a ton of public attention to healthy eating and childhood obesity – less known is that the East Wing also drove policy change from school meals to food labels – but in the years since the White House, she hasn’t said a whole lot about these issues publicly. (Other issues took priority, like a best-selling memoir and registering young people to vote ahead of the 2020 election.) One exception is Obama’s Netflix show for kids called Waffles + Mochi. Though the food and cooking show is very cute, it’s certainly not making headlines, nor putting pressure on the food industry like the first lady once did.
I asked some of the PLEZi team about this – is this Michelle Obama back in the ring?
“It’s rekindling that conversation around the importance of kids’ health,” Debra Eschmeyer told me in an interview this week. Eschmeyer, the former executive director of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign and senior advisor to President Obama, is serving as the chair of the company’s “kitchen cabinet” advisory panel, which includes big names like economist and author Emily Oster and former Robert Wood Johnson Foundation CEO Risa Lavizzo-Mourey. (Eschmeyer is also founder and partner of Original Strategies, a public affairs firm.)
“The whole purpose of when [Sam Kass] and [Michelle Obama] dug up the South Lawn was really to start this larger conversation – that’s what this is also about,” said Eschmeyer, referring to the White House kitchen garden. “It’s about having people question, having people look at the Nutrition Facts label, and making this matter again.”
The backstory: So how did this whole PLEZi come together? Obama said Wednesday that she had told her friend and businessman John Shulman that she wished that parents had healthier options at the grocery store. “That gave John an idea, he said ‘Why don’t we work together on this,’” Obama said Wednesday. Obama noted that Sam Kass, who helped launch Let’s Move! and is now a partner at Acre Venture Partners (and board chair of PLEZi), was involved “every step of the way.”
PLEZi was founded as part of the portfolio of Shulman’s Juggernaut Capital Partners, a private equity firm that is also an investor in VOSS, a luxury bottled water brand, and ZOA Energy Drink, which was co-founded by Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. Shulman is also a major Obama Foundation donor.
Whether any of this works remains to be seen, but I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on it.
New York expands free school meals to 80 percent of students
New York is on track to substantially expand free school meals, following a slew of states that have either gone universal or expanded access.
“An estimated 81% of New York school children will be able to receive free breakfast and lunch due to combined state and federal aid for food programs,” Nick Reisman reported for Spectrum News 1, a local outlet on Thursday. “New York’s state budget included $134 million for meals, money that Democratic lawmakers said will help supplement the expiration of some federal aid.”
“Advocates this year had called for a more expansive amount of funding in order to create a universal school meal program,” Reisman noted.
Context: While this is not quite universal, as many advocates have been fiercely pushing for, it’s closer. Readers of this newsletter may recall that the push for universal free school meals in the U.S. has really picked up some momentum lately after we experimented with the policy during the first three years of the pandemic. It was especially popular among school administrators and parents. It was just easier, less paperwork. It costs money, however, and Congress has not been anywhere close to going for universal free meals on a permanent basis.
As more states move this direction, however, there will be some pressure on D.C. to follow suit one day.
Debt soaring: While we’re on the topic, NPR ran a story this week on how school lunch debt is rising across the country. “This year school officials say meal debt is reaching levels they have never seen,” reported Kate Grumke. “A recent survey from the School Nutrition Association found school districts had more than $19 million in unpaid meal debt, with the Midwest and Great Plains reporting the highest rates of meal debt. Now lawmakers at the state and federal level are looking for ways to fix a growing problem.”
Major ag climate summit in DC next week
There’s a big summit in Washington next week on agriculture innovation and climate with leaders attending from all over the world. The U.S. is hosting the AIM for Climate Summit to “increase and accelerate investment in and support for agriculture and food systems innovation for climate action.”
The gathering, supported by the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR), is part of AIM for Climate, which the U.S. and United Arab Emirates co-launched at COP26. The lineup includes former vice president Al Gore; Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack; John Kerry, the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate; Marie-Claude Bibeau, Canada’s Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food; and Sam Kass of Acre Venture Partners.
Ag research FTW: This kind of stuff is really nerdy, but so important, like for all of humanity. I’ll be there next week on Monday and Tuesday – drop me a line if you’re in town.
What I’m reading
Global food prices rise for first time in a year (Axios). “Global food prices rose in April for the first time in a year, according to new figures released Friday by the United Nations’ food agency,” writes Ivana Saric. “Food commodity prices increased about 0.6% in April from March, according to the UN’s food price index, which tracks the cost of major food commodities. The spike was driven by a “steep increase” in sugar prices, as well as increased costs for meat and rice, which helped offset losses in the vegetable, cereal and dairy price indices.”
Why McDonald’s, Sweetgreen, and others are getting rid of dining rooms and testing “digital kitchens” (Vox). “McDonald’s and other fast food and fast casual giants are betting on the ‘digital kitchen’ — sleek, compact stores that harness automation and digitalization to have diners ordering through mobile apps or digital kiosks — to get diners in and out in record time,” reports Whizy Kim. “Meanwhile, chains are ‘demolishing’ their dining rooms, or shrinking them, in order to meet the demand of drive-thru and digital ordering.”
The link between highly processed foods and brain health (New York Times). “Roughly 60 percent of the calories in the average American diet come from highly processed foods. We’ve known for decades that eating such packaged products – like some breakfast cereals, snack bars, frozen meals and virtually all packaged sweets, among many other things – is linked to unwelcome health outcomes, like an increased risk of diabetes, obesity and even cancer,” writes Sally Wadyka. “But more recent studies point to another major downside to these often delicious, always convenient foods: They appear to have a significant impact on our minds, too.” The NYT package included a quiz on ultra-processed foods. (I scored 9.17 out of 10.)
Ultra-processing: The solution for safer, greener, more nutritious food? (Food Navigator). The processed foods debate continued to spark headlines. In this piece, Flora Southey unpacks some of the various arguments for ultra-processed foods from the industry’s perspective, from lowered food waste to better nutrition.
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