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Tom Stenzel visits White House for gathering on childhood obesity

by | April 20, 2010
More than 100 key stakeholders in obesity prevention from academia, community groups, government and industry, including United Fresh President and Chief Executive Officer Tom Stenzel, gathered in early April at the White House to discuss the growing epidemic of child obesity and ways to combat it.

After hearing from the first lady, Michelle Obama, the meeting afforded an opportunity to talk with the Obama administration's task force members, and then break into working groups on four separate challenges the task force will address: increasing access to healthy foods, increasing physical activity, improving the school environment and empowering parents with their children.

Mr. Stenzel participated in the break-out group on increasing access to healthy foods led by U.S. Department of Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, which focused primarily on increasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables in inner-city and rural "food deserts," and increasing access and affordability for those in poverty and government feeding programs. Many of the community groups present spoke about urban farms on vacant lots, community-supported agriculture, locally grown products and farmers markets.

Mr. Stenzel was able to support these concepts as a "way to instill a connection between people and food production," he said in an April 15 press release, but not as a way to truly meet volume needs in feeding the population. He encouraged the task force to look to the produce distribution system already in place for solutions, a system in which regional and local wholesaler-distributors can play a critical role in getting fresh produce to consumers wherever and whenever needed.

Deputy Secretary Merrigan agreed and suggested a look at wholesale markets as part of the solution in increasing access to fresh produce. In addition, there was general consensus on the need to create incentives for people receiving SNAP benefits (formerly called food stamps and an acronym for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) to choose more fruits and vegetables.

The meetings provided a good opportunity for Mr. Stenzel and others to promote the concept of allocating some portion of SNAP benefits directly to healthier foods like fruits and vegetables, similar to what has been done in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants & Children program, better known as WIC. The Rev. Douglas Greenaway, president of the National WIC Association, spoke with the group about the great popularity of fruit and vegetable vouchers and positive responses from WIC moms.

Messrs. Greenaway and Stenzel also emphasized the role of the WIC vouchers in building demand for fresh produce in those markets where consumers have not found much availability in the past.