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Campbell's Soup vs. Obesity: For Once, a Plan That Might Actually Work

Campbell Soup (CPB) is launching a $10 million grassroots, hometown effort to reduce obesity in Camden, N.J., by half in 10 years, offering a useful model for other food companies who want to be perceived as doing something about the national health problem they helped create.

Campbell, which has been headquartered in the now run-down, dysfunctional urban center of Camden for 140 years, is taking the sort of thought-out, narrowly-defined approach that could actually work. It's one that's not all about selling more soups and spaghetti sauce, although some degree of product synergy is likely to find its way into this, but more on that later.

Of course, some might argue that packaged and fast food companies have no business wading into the issue of obesity reduction at all, just because any attempt to do so will ultimately be hypocritical and self-serving. But if any company can navigate this fundamental dilemma it's Campbell, which operates a relatively unfattening line of products. In addition to their soups, they sell Prego sauce, Goldfish crackers, Pace picante sauce, Swanson chicken stock and V-8 juice.

And the initiatives Campbell is tackling sure beat trumped-up product reformulations and press releases about childhood obesity awareness month. Kim Fortunato, the non-profit veteran Campbell hired last November to head this effort, will work with a handful of community groups that are already up and running with various programs. Campbell employees will be volunteering and Fortunato will be doling out $10 million over the next 10 years.
Among the goals:

  • Converting Camden's many abandoned lots into vegetable gardens
  • Funding after-school sports and exercise programs with the YMCA
  • Bringing more fresh fruits and vegetables into the mom and pop shops that function as Camden's grocery stores
  • Luring another actual supermarket into a city that currently has only one for its 78,000 residents (Hello Walmart!)
  • And, perhaps most importantly, sponsoring free six-week cooking classes, initially for kids
The obstacles are huge. Camden, a largely black city, is more overweight than average -- nearly 40% of kids aged 3-9 are obese, an 8% jump over the national average. And most people have no idea what to do with a spear of broccoli. "This is a city where the vast majority of women are three generations of people who've never cooked," Fortunato told me.

More than 99% of Campbell's corporate employees don't actually live in the city, opting for the tree-lined streets and the higher Starbucks penetration of the suburbs.

As for how Campbell execs will react if the Food Bank of South Jersey starts teaching kids to make homemade chicken soup and their very own pasta sauce -- well, that remains to be seen. When I put this question to Fortunato, here's what she said:

Incorporating the product will be a part of our plan as we move forward. We have a lot of healthy products. Our juices are 100% vegetable juices and these can be used in fresh smoothies along with fruits. I do think there's a role.
The question will be whether Fortunato will be able to keep Campbell's promotional self interests far enough on the sidelines to keep them from derailing the whole effort.

Image from Camden Tomorrow

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