Conference Focuses on Marketing Healthy Foods

The Food Law Society at Harvard Law School hosted a conference Friday on United States food policy, discussing healthy diets, federal agricultural laws, hunger, and how to encourage healthy eating. The conference highlighted the need to increase access to cheap, healthy food and to rebrand healthy food as something with mass appeal.

Most of the conference was centered on the legal and economic issues associated with food. Doug Rauch, former president of Trader Joe’s Co. who helped turn the California chain into a national success, spoke on what he called “the U.S. hunger paradox”—the idea that we have more food, more cheaply than any nation in history, but more people are going hungry. Rauch went on to explain that on the supply side, we have so much food that people who can afford to buy can afford to waste; it’s so cheap that many people throw good food out unconcerned.

On the demand side, Rauch said, those afflicted by poverty cannot afford food containing essential nutrients, leading to malnutrition, and can only afford cheap food with empty calories, leading to obesity. Rauch is fighting empty calories by opening health food stores in poor communities whose products are cheap, but still economically sustainable for the business.

“Fighting hunger isn’t about a full stomach, it’s about a healthy meal ... This is something we know how to cure, what is missing is the prospective, the policy, and the will to do it,” Rauch said.

Jennifer Pomeranz, the director of legal initiatives at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale, discussed the market conditions that made unhealthy food so much more popular than healthy food. Pomeranz criticized the restaurant industry for lobbying to keep calorie counts off of menus. That effort, she said, has worsened access to healthy food, which is less aggressively marketed, less accessible, and more expensive.

“They expect you to be responsible, but they don’t give you the info needed to be responsible,” Pomeranz said.

Freya Williams and Graceann Bennett—two executives at OgilvyEarth, a marketing company devoted to promoting sustainable products—discussed how to make sustainability more appealing to consumers. They cited the statistical observation that environmental sustainability is either seen as “feminine” or “for rich elitist snobs and crunchy granola hippies” as hindrances to greater sustainability. The apparent femininity makes men embarrassed to engage in its practices, and the elitism and hippie mystique deters the moderate middle class.

Bennett explained that the key is for sustainable companies to engage in marketing techniques with masculine and more mainstream-America appeal.

“Honestly, what guy is going to buy a little square car called a Nissan Leaf?” Williams quipped.

The conference was sponsored in name by Technology, Engineering, and Design (TED), a nonprofit focused on spreading ideas through conferences that can be viewed online for free. The HLS conference was independently organized by the Harvard Law Food Society, an organization dedicated to giving HLS students experience in food and agricultural policy from legal, managerial, and scientific perspectives.

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