Businesses Pledge 'Healthier Choices' For Customers

Corporate America is jumping on the opportunities to make people healthier, while keep their bottoms line strong. Leaders of supermarkets, hotel chains and restaurant groups gathered in Washington this week for a summit aimed at shaping private sector solutions to the obesity epidemic.

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First Lady Michelle Obama has not been shy about asking corporations to help tackle the problem of obesity. This week, hundreds of corporate movers and shakers came to Washington for a summit sponsored by the Partnership for a Healthier America, of which Michelle Obama is the honorary chair. From Wal-Mart to Hyatt Hotels and others, big players came with specific pledges of ways their businesses plan to help people make, quote, "healthier choices." NPR's Allison Aubrey has the story.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: There's one thing that all of the 800 leaders gathered in the ballroom of Washington's Omni Shoreham Hotel agreed upon: To combat obesity, people need easy access to healthy food; it needs to be affordable, and of course delicious.

MICHEL NISCHAN: We're going to do this herb salad. We have a variety of these little greens here.

AUBREY: Award-winning chef Michel Nischan is usually found cooking in his restaurant in one of Connecticut's toniest towns. But today he's cooking for all the guests at the summit to show that you don't need fancy, foraged mushrooms, Montauk calamari, or Connecticut oysters to make a great first course.

NISCHAN: So these are just different herbs to jazz it up. And this is probably a quarter ounce at $10 a pound. So this much on a family plate is pennies to get antioxidants and fiber and all kinds of wonderful things like that.

AUBREY: Add an entree of heirloom grain risotto with autumn vegetables and Nischan says he's got a seasonal feast on a reality-check budget.

NISCHAN: So when you can spend 4.50 and make a really great dinner for somebody, we can do this.

This is the average dinner budget most Americans have. And Michel Nischan is passionate. Like everyone at the Partnership, he wants a sea change in the way Americans eat. But no one is under the illusion that getting there is going to be quick or easy. Cheryl Dolven is with the Darden Restaurant Group, which includes popular chains such as Olive Garden and Red Lobster. She says a lot of her customers like things just the way they are.

CHERYL DOLVEN: We're looking at doing things silently and slowly behind the scenes. We're going to be making changes that our guests won't even necessarily know that that's happening.

AUBREY: Such as trimming portions and calories and reducing sodium. These may be incremental steps in the fight against obesity and high-blood pressure. And they may not change the way people think about food right away.

MAYOR COREY BOOKER: I mean, so this is the challenge. You either surrender to circumstances as they are or you can take responsibility for changing them.

AUBREY: That's Corey Booker, an honorary co-chair of the Partnership for a Healthier America. And he's also mayor of Newark, New Jersey, a city plagued by obesity and lifestyle diseases. He says in looking for solutions, it's changes in the marketplace, the real world, that can really help people begin to behave differently.

BOOKER: He says Washington certainly can't legislate obesity away. Nor does he think corporations can just take the charity route - writing a check for, say, more diabetes research. He says what companies must do is take responsibility to change the way they do business, to offer and encourage healthy choices. And he argues it's starting to happen.

So you start with one light in the sky, another, another, and before you know it, you have a movement.

AUBREY: For evidence, Booker points to the changes that the nation's largest retailer, Wal-Mart, has already made. Andrea Thomas, Wal-Mart's leader on sustainability and Healthy Food, was at the summit. And she explains she's working with her suppliers to bring prices of the better-for-you foods down.

ANDREA THOMAS: There's a lot of things that you can do to leverage size and scale to get to a lower cost.

AUBREY: One example: She says her customers used to pay more for healthier whole wheat pasta. Now?

THOMAS: You can pay the same for whole wheat pasta that you would for white pasta.

AUBREY: But lots of people still need help beyond just buying the right foods. How do you prepare them in a way that's worth eating? That's another way retailers and restaurants can help.

FLOYD CARDOZ: Hey, Chris. Want to pull the chicken up?

AUBREY: Back in the hotel, kitchen chef Michel Nischan and Floyd Cardoz have been roasting chicken thighs, not the pricier breast.

CARDOZ: I believe they have more flavor.

AUBREY: To drive down fat and amp up that flavor, he's paired the chicken with a side dish, simmered in cloves and cumin.

Mmm, I can really smell that clove in there.

CARDOZ: A little bit goes a long way.

AUBREY: All of the dishes were served family style to the summit guests. And by the end of the meal every plate was clean. Susan Terry's with the Hyatt Hotel chain. She says she was impressed.

SUSAN TERRY: Very creative and flavorful, certainly seasonal ingredients, but the combinations were spectacular.

AUBREY: And Terry's not just talking the talk. Hyatt Hotels says they're ready to walk the walk. During the summit, Hyatt announced its pledge to remake some of its own menus, starting with kids meals. They will be marketed on the menu with fruits and veg instead of mac-n-cheese.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

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