Americans are too fat and keep adding pounds. The problem is huge and the statistics startling -- 65% of adults are overweight or obese. Our children, 13% aged 6 to 11, are bulging with extra pounds.
America's weight gains cut across all ages, racial and ethnic groups, and both genders. The result is costly. According to a Surgeon General's report, 300,000 deaths each year are associated with obesity. Excessive weight gain can lead to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke, arthritis, breathing problems and psychological disorders. It all cost an estimated $117 billion in 2000, but will it stop there?
It seems that as Americans push their body mass indexes into the red zone, they're also testing new legal waters. It's not surprising that a group of overweight citizens filed a class-action suit charging that McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken misled customers with greasy, salty, sugary foods.
And when California's largest school district in Oakland decided to slim down, they tossed out every junk food vendor in their school district in an unprecedented move.
So, whose responsibility is it anyway? After all, this is America, the land of plenty where free choice and freedom rule. Should food somehow be restricted, legislated, litigated or taxed because too many people are over-indulgent and can't stop eating high-fat foods and sweets? Or is this an opportunity for America's food retailers to reach out and develop the most loyal customer ever? It's obvious Americans need help in making smarter eating choices, and what better place to get such help than at the local food store?
Susan Finn, chair, American Council for Fitness and Nutrition, agrees. "Grocery stores have an opportunity to educate. It's been given very little attention [to date]," she told me. Finn pointed to the success Subway, the restaurant franchise, has enjoyed with its healthy sandwich diet program. Such opportunities exist for grocery retailers as well. Food Marketing Institute, Grocery Manufacturers of America and National Grocers Association are all members of the newly formed ACFN, which seeks lasting solutions to America's obesity problem.
The retail community is aware of the problem and is starting to respond. FMI has partnered with the International Food Information Council and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in releasing a new brochure offering a personalized approach to using the Food Pyramid in achieving a sustainable healthy lifestyle. The association also has several promotional kits available to retailers -- Healthy Start and Nutri-Facts Kits -- that provide nutritional education and healthy food choices.
While the problem won't be solved overnight, much more can be done. Retailers need to be proactive, partner with their suppliers, and utilize their many resources and staff. Pharmacists and nutritionists can greatly benefit weight-loss campaigns. More creative approaches are needed such as the Delirobics deli program launched last year by Hansel 'n Gretel, a deli meat manufacturer, promoting healthy sandwiches at retail. Marsh Supermarkets took the bull by the horns last year with an all-out weight management program dubbed "Lighten Up, Indiana." These are examples of how supermarkets cannot only help solve a national health problem, but also add real value and service to their communities.