Childhood Obesity Bay Area Conference: Three Companies that are Transforming Childhood Nutrition
By Emily Regier and Alexander Wolf
Our team recently attended the 5th Annual Childhood Obesity Bay Area Annual Conference (COBA 2016). The conference, sponsored by Slow Food San Francisco, drew about 200 attendees from a variety of backgrounds, including healthcare professionals, students, and interested San Francisco residents – all focused on how to best combat the childhood obesity epidemic in the US.
Over one third of US children and adolescents are overweight or obese, with 18% of 6-11 year old children and 21% of 12-19 year olds being obese. Even more concerning are the levels of “severe obesity” – characterized by a BMI over 40 or greater – which impacts 2% of children 2-5 years old, 5% of children 6-11 years old, and 6.5% of 12-19 year olds.
One of the most thought-provoking presentations of the day was titled “Investing in Health: The Business of Childhood Obesity.” This panel featured three executives from companies with missions focused on childhood health and obesity prevention:
Mr. Ben Mand of Plum Organics (which manufactures organic baby food)
Mr. Chris Cornyn of Revolution Foods (which aims to create healthy, appealing meals for schools)
Ms. Thea Runyan of Kurbo Health (which has created a personal coaching app designed to help children and families with weight management).
The wide-ranging discussion touched upon topics including the challenges of scaling their businesses, their efforts to balance a focus on health with the need to appeal to consumers’ tastes, and the panelists’ hopes for the future of childhood obesity and food insecurity.
Company Overviews – Bringing Nutritious Meals and Weight Loss Programs to Children
Revolution Foods aims to bring nutritious, fresh, and tasty foods to schools and children across the US, serving over 200 million meals each year. In addition to school lunches, Revolution Foods provides after school meals, breakfast and dinners, and even nutrition education program to partner schools. Additionally, their meals are available at stores such as Safeway, Walmart, and other major grocery stores – you can find a store near you with their store locator here. 1% of their proceeds go towards food donations to schools.
This company provides organic food to babies, toddlers, and children, focusing on organic, non-GMO, and whole ingredient products. Plum Organics advocates for better nutrition in children at their most critical point of development, ages 0-3, and is committed to bringing their products to children most in need throughout the country through their Full Effect initiative. To see all of Plum Organics’ products, please visit their website here.
The Kurbo Health app, meant for youth 8-18 years old, uses a simple “red light, yellow light, and green light” system to help children learn about nutrition and make smart food choices. It also includes food and exercise tracking tools, personalized texts and notifications, games, and weekly challenges. In addition to the app, Kurbo Health offers a 12-week program that includes one-on-one support from health coaches using FaceTime or Skype and engages the entire family. The app is free on the App Store; and the additional coaching program costs $50-$85 per month (depending on the chosen plan: either a one month plan at $85/month, a three month plan at $70/month, or a six month plan at $50/month).
Panel discussion: Investing in childhood nutrition
Q: What are the biggest challenges and benefits of accomplishing your mission through a business?
Mr. Chris Cornyn (Revolution Foods): We serve 200 million fresh, healthy meals to kids each year. Scaling the business is a monumental feat. We have to build culinary centers, get a supply chain, cook meals, and get them to schools. We’re changing how big food works and how kids eat. It’s hard to change habits when an eighth grader is used to a diet of Doritos and Kit Kats. We have to provide meals for $1 because that’s what the government reimburses schools. It’s a complex way of changing the world. We have started conversations with other companies.
Mr. Ben Mand (Plum Organics): As we scale, how do we bring more scale to our impact? We were started by a few parents who were uninspired by the choices for busy parents to get nutritious snacks for their kids. A key milestone was being purchased by Campbell Soup. That sounds like a bad thing to say, but we saw it as an opportunity. We’re all about nourishing kids with the best food. We reincorporated as a public benefit corporation, so it’s written into our bylaws about helping all kids with nutrition and organic food. It’s part of our core DNA. As we get bigger, we have to keep bringing in employees who are passionate about our mission… When we were purchased by a big company, we can change them from the inside. We’re trying to radically change the way they serve their consumers. We’re small; we reach 2-3% of households. They reach 30-40%. The small changes they make have a profound impact.
Q: How have you made strides to bring resources to communities with less access?
Mr. Cornyn: 80% of kids who eat our meals qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. By the nature of our business we’re able to change the food behavior of a lot of kids who wouldn’t have the opportunity otherwise.
Ms. Runyan (Kurbo Health): Our goal was to increase access for people who couldn’t go to an offline program. We wanted to bring the tools to anyone across the country. We’re using technology to do that. We’re able to be innovative but we’re grounded in a program that we know works.
Mr. Mand: We have a program called Full Effect designed to get organic foods and nutrition education to kids in need. One in five kids is food insecure. Many get enough calories but they’re not nutrient dense. If you put an ingredient label on kids across America, the first vegetable would be a potato in the form of a French fry and the first fruit would be apple juice. Those are very telling statistics.
Q: Are there paradigms we use to talk about obesity that don’t resonate with your customers?
Mr. Mand: People were talking about how it’s hard to change someone who’s used to certain behaviors. In utero, a baby has more taste buds than they ever will in their life. In utero and in the first couple of years it’s important to develop the palate and develop nutritional intelligence that will lead to better outcomes. Parents and doctors don’t look at food as milestones. We think that’s absolutely paramount.
Ms. Runyan: I come from a clinical setting, where we talk about BMI and are focused on metrics and outcomes. We’re worried about those but we find that when we talk to consumers about weight, even if that’s what they’re looking for, they don’t want to talk in that framework. Parents are looking for weight loss but they don’t want to see anything about weight loss or diets on our site…[Consumers] want to talk about healthy eating, healthy living, and a healthy environment. It’s a huge marketing challenge. When we launch into weight issues, the sense of denial is huge, so we shift to something else that’s related. Maybe the child wants to be a better athlete or just to feel better.
Mr. Cornyn: We don’t talk about obesity. Our goal is when we go into the cafeteria and look in the trash can, we don’t want to see wrappers from Doritos and Gatorade. The more kids eat our meals, the more they’re not bringing other things in. That will get rid of the word obesity. We’re just changing behavior.
Ms. Runyan: Even if you’re in a school trying to work on health, you can’t talk about weight at school. You will get completely stonewalled...You can’t go into a school district and talk about childhood obesity.
Q: How do you ensure students enjoy the healthier meals?
Mr. Cornyn: We can go into schools and test the meals. We do rapid prototyping of new meals. We kill a lot of them. We ask really simple questions: What does your mom make at home that you wish was served in school? Is there food we don’t serve that you’d like to see? What should we name this? It’s hard to get into the mindset of a third grader, so we’re in their world. We have flops, but we do this all over the country. We see very different preferences in different regions. We watch the trash cans and see what happens. For example, we saw all this bread in trash cans. We have to get a certain amount of grain into the meal based on government regulations, and we went back and tested it but it was still ending up in the trash can. It’s a fluid process. Kids’ tastes change. We have to make meals that are at least a little bit like the new Taco Bell meal.
Q: How has Revolution Foods pushed the envelope most?
Mr. Cornyn: We’ve changed the conversation. Before, there were a few maverick food service directors but it was mostly just the same companies dumping off food. The co-founders said screw it, we’re going to try to change this. Now 200 million meals later, it’s not perfect, but every school is addressing food in schools, not “school food.” That’s a big transformation and I hope it continues. I don’t see food in schools as some other category.
Q: My patients go to public school and they don’t like the food. How can you make it more tasty?
Mr. Cornyn: It’s an ongoing struggle. The government sets nutritional guidelines. We’re always trying to enhance our meals. There’s a stigma about school food. It’s a difficult needle to thread between cost, nutrition, and kid love. Nobody’s nailed it.
Q: How do you want to improve?
Mr. Cornyn: We’re also taking the products lower-income parents depend on in the grocery store and reinventing them. We’re trying to make Hamburger Helper 2.0. Most people are not ordering Blue Apron, but we can create the same experience. You can get a cup of noodles that’s 29 cents and kids love it. How can we deliver a fresh noodle experience in a cost-effective way? It goes beyond what’s happening in school.
Ms. Runyan: Medicaid. Right now we have three channels: direct-to-consumer, insurance companies, and employers. But most patients are on Medicaid, so we’re teaming up with those providers.
Mr. Mand: Having a garden in my backyard and making something in the kitchen is my gold standard. How can we get closer to that? We can use fresher ingredients. We can process them differently so they’re safe but they retain more of the color and texture and nutrients. We can package it more effectively.