On the 20th of September, Nestlé held an event dedicated to the issue of children’s health, and specifically, discussing measures to address and prevent childhood obesity.
The event brought together key stakeholders including European Commission officials from DG SANTE, a variety of public health researchers and civil society associations.
The presentations provided an overview of the various programmes and initiatives tackling childhood obesity, ranging from education and information (via schools, sporting events) to encouraging physical activity, as well as an update on the situation of childhood obesity in the various Member States.
While all of the initiatives presented were quite innovative and interesting, encompassing initiatives encouraging children to cook, schools rearranging their school yard to encourage children to move more, and other research focusing on increasing the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, there remain several obstacles, at the “micro” level, in order to effectively address childhood obesity:
- Scaling: many of these projects are limited to a small community or a town and it is by no means easy to scale them to regional, national, and especially, European level.
- Continuity: keeping these projects funded in the long run is often a challenge.
- Consistency: the “human factor” is often underestimated. Even if a project is successful, the people involved in its implementation as it scales have their own “styles” or characteristics which may not match the requisites that were met at a smaller scale.
- Displacement: there are many different priorities besides childhood obesity. For instance, cyberbullying, digital literacy, etc. Whenever there is a fixed global envelope or budget (as is the case in public funding), then giving priority to one topic means taking away money from another.
- Counter-effects: some actions carried out by companies may counter the positive effects of their projects. For instance, advertising unhealthy, high added value products counteracts initiatives encouraging children to eat more healthily.
Finally, progress is also hampered by “macro” level considerations. Given the nature of our current financial and economic system, nearly all companies are forced to adopt a growth/profit seeking business model. This is especially true for big corporations. Even though there are various ways of increasing profits without increasing sales (develop “premium”, more expensive but more healthy products, gain market shares from competitors…), at some point this is not sustainable. Once companies have made all possible improvements to their products portfolio, in a world where neither demography, nor availability of natural resources, nor consumer purchasing power grows, the model is unsustainable.
Some possible ways of solving it, besides rethinking the economic and financial system altogether, include:
- Putting pressure on select shareholders of big corporations which pressure the corporation into short term unsustainable business strategies.
- Create a competitive environment around “health” where companies are encouraged to develop healthier products as part of their sales pitch to consumers.
- Shift consumer demand to more healthy products which will force companies to adapt their strategies (a trend which has already been observed in some markets).
- Develop indicators which could help put pressure on companies to internalize externalities (impact on the environment, use of pesticides etc) or get more information about the amount of calories, sugars, fat, salt that their customers consumer on a year by year basis.