Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Corporate Citizenship

First Lady Michelle Obama has taken on the challenge of reducing childhood obesity and improving nutrition among our young people. Like any initiative, this takes not only dedicated people, but also money.

Where will that money come from? At the federal level, Congress is intent on perpetuating wars of choice, tax cuts for the wealthy, and kickbacks to the robber barons of the financial “services” industry. Social programs are a prime target for John Boehner’s cuts. At the state level here in New Jersey, the governor is more interested in tax breaks for his wealthy friends and subsidies for the gambling industry.

Fortunately, Camden, one of the poorest cities in the nation, has several benefactors that are stepping in to help combat childhood obesity. The most prominent and generous of these benefactors is the Camden-based Campbell’s Soup Company.

The small auditorium at Forest Hill School was packed this morning with a group of third and fourth graders surrounded by the media and community dignitaries. Seated amidst the small children, two adult guests conspicuously stood out - Tom Frain and Richard Calladanato.

You probably never heard of Tom and Richard, but I’ll bet they have prepared some of the meals you have eaten. They are corporate chefs who develop the recipes for Campbell’s Soup products.

The event was a press conference announcing a cooperative to combat childhood obesity and hunger in Camden. The company announced a ten-year program, working with the Camden School System, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Cooper University Hospital, Rutgers University, and several local non-profits. Campbell’s will donate $10 million to the program, provide employee volunteers, and share the expertise of its nutritionists to make this program successful.

This is not just a “feel good” initiative. There is a specific measurable goal: reduction in childhood obesity (where Camden is above the national average) by 50% over the ten year life of the program.

Executives from Campbell, Cooper University Hospital, and the Burlington/Camden County YMCA addressed the audience prior to some heartfelt remarks from Camden Mayor Dana Redd. The speakers explained why obesity and hunger are linked together. Basically, when kids don’t know when their next meal is coming from, they eat whatever they can get. And in Camden, with only one supermarket on the outskirts of town, it is easier to get potato chips than fresh fruit.

The initiative will focus on access to affordable, healthy food, improved facilities and participation in physical activity, and providing nutrition and health information to students.

There are already several programs in place to help alleviate the obesity and hunger problems. Campbell has initiated a six-week nutrition course with the Food Bank of South Jersey and their goal is to provide every student with fifty hours of nutritional education annually. Cooper University Hospital has programs for young parents on nutrition and breast feeding. This consortium of Campbell and its partners will continue these as well as augment them with new programs. They will also work to increase residents’ ability to grow their own vegetables and to attract at least one more supermarket to serve the city.

The pilot program will initially concentrate on two of Camden’s neighborhoods at six sites - three elementary schools, a church, and two daycare centers. The ultimate goal is to spread the program city-wide as well as in other cities across the nation where Campbell has facilities.

Denise Morrison, Campbell’s Chief Operating Officer, will take the helm as CEO in August. She has visited many schools around the country and made the point that as nutrition increases, so do grades. To show Campbell’s commitment to the program, the company hired a Director of Childhood Obesity and Hunger this past November to manage these initiatives.

Mayor Redd told the audience about what she called the “plague of childhood obesity.” She pointed out that we all want our youth to have a head start in life, but unfortunately some children only get a head start in obesity and diabetes. But she was enthusiastic about how this community initiative brings hope to the residents of the city.

Following the formal presentations, Tom and Richard, the Campbell’s chefs, donned their toques and conducted a nutrition class and cooking demonstration, with some of the students participating and everyone getting a bite of healthy food.

I’ve written a lot about how corporations have an undue influence in our society, putting profits above people and production above environmental responsibility. Campbell is a pleasant and important exception to this trend. The company should be applauded, not only for staying in Camden when times were tough, but for reaching out to the next generation of workers, managers, and innovators, and ensuring that all citizens, regardless of their economic station in life, have opportunities for greatness.

Photo Slide Show:

Mayor Redd's Comments:

COO Morrison's Comments:

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