There is apparently one piece of former first lady Michelle Obama’s legacy that President Donald Trump cannot roll back: The food industry’s sweeping embrace of healthier, more nutritious products.
On Thursday, more than a dozen food companies, including candy maker Mars and convenience chain Cumberland Farms, announced new initiatives with Partnership for a Healthier America, a foundation that Obama chairs and helped found.
The initiatives will bring smaller candy bars to checkout aisles and more water to gas stations, among other things. They will also provide a rare bright spot to public health advocates at a time that has seen Trump’s administration freeze other key parts of the former first lady’s healthy eating legacy.
In the past two weeks alone, the Trump administration has stalled nutrition standards for school lunches and delayed rules that require restaurants to label menu calories.
But it seems Trump cannot roll back the former first lady’s continued influence with private companies.
“Washington is Washington, but progress will continue,” said Larry Soler, the chief executive of PHA. “We’re proving the private sector can play as big a role as policy change.”
For companies, there are financial and political motivations for making these sorts of changes: Consumers are agitating for healthier foods, and in smaller portions, and voluntary industry-led initiatives can stave off regulation.
For public health advocates, the partnerships have the potential to get healthier foods in the marketplace.
Among the largest of the new initiatives is a partnership with PepsiCo, which will allow PHA to audit the company’s 10-year reduction of added sugar, saturated fat and sodium in its food and beverage portfolios. Pepsi has indicated it will make the changes, which will apply to two-thirds of its beverage and three-quarters of its food portfolio, by investing in healthier product lines.
The candy makers Mars, Nestle, Ferrara, Lindt & Spungli and Ferrero Rocher have promised PHA they will cut portion sizes of half their products to 200 calories or less by 2022, and label at least 90 percent with front-of-pack nutrition information.
The five companies make some of America’s most popular candies, including Snickers, M&Ms, Starburst, Butterfingers and Russell Stover’s chocolates. About 30 percent of their packaged products are 200 calories or less now.
Separately, the country’s largest convenience chain, Cumberland Farms, has committed to stocking more fresh produce in its 600 locations, and in pricing them competitively against less-healthy options.
And Feeding America, a network of 200 food banks that feed 46 million people, has promised to redesign its distribution system to get member food banks to stock more fruits and vegetables.
In most cases, these partnerships are binding: PHA requires that its partners sign legal contracts to that effect. In exchange for making, and keeping, these public health commitments, the foundation provides companies publicity, networking and technical assistance. An independent third-party auditor monitors compliance, and PHA can sue partners who violate the terms of their agreement.
“I love what Partnership for a Healthier America is doing – it’s not just window-dressing,” said Nancy Roman, chief executive of Capital Area Food Bank in Washington, D.C., which is also announcing a PHA commitment. “You make a contract, they come measure your progress. They keep your feet to the fire on this.”
In the seven years since PHA launched, the foundation has partnered with the likes of Walmart, Dannon and Del Monte to cut calories, sugar and sodium from the U.S. food supply. In 2014, it reported, with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, that 16 of the country’s largest food companies had already axed 6.4 trillion calories from their product lines.
PHA has also overseen marketing campaigns for water and fresh produce that appear in grocery stores, gas stations and media outlets nationwide.
“We’ve seen tremendous conversation and cultural shift,” said Deborah Eschmeyer, the former executive director of Let’s Move!, evaluating the legacy of the campaign earlier this year. “This is a new wave for the private sector.”
This arrangement has not always been popular: PHA was criticized for partnering with Walmart in 2011, and some liberals have faulted the former first lady for lending her imprimatur to junk-food brands, or for letting corporations “water down” her public-health message. Even some of Obama’s allies have said PHA’s partnerships run counter to her nutrition agenda, given that many food companies lobby against nutrition regulations even as they embrace voluntary initiatives.
That is the case this year, as well: The National Association of Convenience Stores signed a PHA commitment, promising to push its member stores to stock healthier snacks and bottled water – only weeks after it led an effort to delay menu-labeling requirements that the first lady had also advocated for.
Still, at a time when much of the last administration’s nutrition policies seem destined for a rollback, some advocates see reason for optimism in the new partnerships. Earlier this month, the Trump administration froze regulations, championed by the former first lady, that would further reduce the sodium and increase the whole grains served in school meals.
The administration has also delayed rules requiring restaurants, grocery stores and other establishments to put calories counts on their menus, and has signaled an interest in pushing back the rollout of new and more transparent nutrition labels.
On top of that, the omnibus bill passed by the House last week forbids government agencies from working with industry on any sort of voluntary sodium requirements, or from issuing any guidelines on food marketing to children. The first lady has praised initiatives to limit the sorts of foods that get advertised to kids, and cheered federal efforts to get junk-food ads out of schools.
Absent those sorts of regulations, Obama’s supporters are pinning their hopes for nutritional change on private companies.
“They have to respond to the marketplace no matter what goes on in Washington,” said Marion Nestle, a prominent food activist and professor at New York University who has long applauded Obama’s efforts. “That’s why so many food companies are promising the ‘no’s’ – no trans fats, sugars, artificial additives, pesticides, and for food animals, even no antibiotics and hormones. As long as the public demands healthier and more sustainably raised food, the food industry will have to respond.”
Candy makers have come to that conclusion, said John Downs, chief executive of the National Confectioners’ Association. The industry faces consumer anxiety about sugar, as well as the threat of the new nutrition labels. Some companies, seeking to face those challenges head on, have begun repackaging their products in smaller portion sizes and searching for sugar substitutes.
But the five-year partnership signed with PHA on Thursday was the most significant industry move to date, Downs said. The five companies’ commitment will require significant changes, in some cases, to packaging, recipes, manufacturing facilities and marketing materials.
“It’s a big commitment, and a big shift,” Downs said. But “obviously there’s an important and ongoing conversation around sugar in the U.S., and around the world … and our industry has been discussing how we can be a productive part of that conversation.”
Elsewhere in the food industry, manufacturers have changed recipes to reduce salt and sugar, according to a recent report by the Consumer Goods Forum. And major food brands, from McDonald’s to Coca-Cola, have launched or acquired new and purportedly healthier products to rehab their junk-food image.
Still, a product like Suja cold-pressed juice represents a tiny fraction of Coke’s portfolio. And if the industry is going to make a measurable impact on public health, Nestle said, it still has to cut back on its offerings of highly processed products.
Obama has signaled she’ll be there for the ride: In a letter to PHA supporters last spring, the former first lady said she planned to continue working on obesity issues long after her husband left office.
The former first lady was to address the PHA Summit Friday in Washington with former White House chef Sam Kass.