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Leveraging Consumer Insights to Address the Obesity Epidemic

By Harvey Hartman, Founder & Chairman

Hartman Perspectives

kids at lunchBy now we are all very familiar with the cast of characters who inhabit public debates on health, eating and obesity. Food companies make things. Academics study. Experts opine. Policy folks convene. These are the things we do, and we know what to expect from the others. 

Periodically all parties will declare a truce and get together and try to think and talk about what we can all do differently to help us eat better and weigh less. But these discussions are rarely productive. They are highly stylized, abstract affairs and seldom include the voice of the consumer. Historically we’ve mostly ignored those consumers as we’ve collected our learnings and built plans to tell them what to do. Gosh, how I wish that I could sit down to a presentation by a nutritionist and learn that his insights were based on several years of wandering through ordinary folks’ basements to see what is hiding down in those freezers. Imagine policy informed by the way people live as opposed to how we think they live. 

I believe we can – and must – do better. For ourselves and for our children. 

The Hartman Group is well known for our cultural perspective on American eating and snacking behaviors, health and obesity issues. The subject area is vast, but I want to spend just a few moments today to see how culture might be harnessed as an agent for change. To show just a hint of the possibilities cultural solutions could provide for us in terms of shifting consumer behavior around healthy eating and snacking habits and putting a halt to our expanding waistlines. 

This culture thing, how does that work? And what are we supposed to do? 

Policy and nutrition advocates are almost always looking at the stuff, the people or their behavior and are forgetting that all eating occurs in a cultural context. Like any other culture, ours has rules governing when we should eat, what we should eat, with whom we should eat and so forth. Or at least it should work that way. But as I believe most of us recognize, those norms governing our eating behavior have all but disappeared in our contemporary lives. And as those rules have vanished, so too has our ability to control our waistlines. 

Let’s begin by thinking creatively about how to repair some of the damage here, how to refashion our collective eating practices to reflect a new morality about food consumption. 

This may sound vague or daunting, but it need not be. I’ve always maintained that a great example to draw upon here has been the precipitous decline in smoking rates we’ve achieved in the past two decades. 

Who knows if it was policies or taxes or education? I know that complaining about R.J. Reynolds didn’t seem to be helping. And I know that once it became difficult and morally repugnant to smoke, smoking rates declined. We began by banning smoking from our schools and workplaces. No more smoking at college seminars. No more smoking at your work desk or in the office. True, some took their workplace smoking habits outside. But when smoking began to be viewed as morally reprehensible, many of those standing around outside began to wonder if their behavior might be standing in the way of advancement, in some cases quitting smoking altogether. See, our collective norms can – and do – work.    

Now let’s apply those same principles to our schools and workplaces to effect similar changes in our approaches to eating and snacking. Our schools and workplaces are critical anchors of our cultural behavior. We begin our daily lives in these settings, and it’s not uncommon to spend more time here than we do with our families. What better starting place to begin our journey toward more healthy eating habits?

Eating is trickier than smoking and requires more nuance. Here I think it’s best to try to reshape our perspective on what I term “the mindless consumption of calories.” We must eat food. And we should enjoy eating food. It’s just that we need to find ways to eat less of it.

Schools – meals only, eaten together

  1. No individual eating in class. I use the word individual here because there is some evidence that kids eating meals together in the classroom can lead to more effective learning outcomes. Pilot programs in several states have found that kids are more likely to actually consume their breakfast in classrooms – as opposed to cafeteria settings – resulting in better attention spans, grades and test scores.[1]
  2. Eliminate vending machines. Period. Many will view this as unnecessarily reactive and suggest that we should start slowly in this area by replacing the stuff in vending machines with healthier alternatives such as fruit or nuts or juices. Yet those alternatives are themselves packed with calories. Besides, if we believe in leading by example, why would we ever want to let our beloved children think that it is socially acceptable to eat from a machine?
  3. No more snacking or treats. Moms and dads of younger kids are already complaining of the onerous burdens upon them to provide snacks free of all manner of allergens. No more worries there.

Bottom line, children should be eating meals – and only meals – in school settings and should be eating these meals together.

Work – why should workplaces tolerate mindless grazing habits?

  1. Remove all vending machines from the workplace. If we ask that our cherished kids learn not to eat from machines, why should we do otherwise?
  2. End the practice of letting employees bring leftovers from last night’s book club or a client breakfast to leave for anonymous consumption in the break room. It’s always struck me as odd that we seek to avoid wasting food by leaving it out for others to eat. The net result is that rather than throwing it into the trash or the compost bin, we implore others to recycle this food through their bodies in the form of needless calories. Either way, it ends up in the compost bin.
  3. No more dishes with sweets or other caloric offerings on employee desks. How this ever became a thing, I have no idea.
  4. Phase out those routine celebrations of birthdays in the conference room that serve as a conduit for hundreds of unnecessary, mindless calories. Instead, celebrate more selectively and with a higher purpose. It’s perfectly fine to feature indulgent food here, because you’re doing so with greater forethought.
  5. And must it be the case that every conference offer five (or more) calorie-laden eating occasions per day? Breakfast. Break with pastries and coffee. Lunch buffet in the round room. Afternoon cookies and coffee. Happy hour with appetizers and finger food. Dinner and dessert at the “in” restaurant. Return to hotel room and complain to spouse over phone about sore tummy. Shower and repeat. Why do we continue to do this to ourselves? It certainly is not something I’ve encountered at international conferences.

I could go on, but you get the picture.

I realize that many may initially view these comments as too reactionary or extreme. But they aren’t meant that way. Much as in the case with smoking, the only reason these suggestions seem so implausible is that we are looking at them from the reality of our present condition.

These ideas are a hypothetical way of beginning to drive cultural change in our schools and workplaces, and are not meant as absolutes. Likewise, I am by no means suggesting that they be viewed as fodder for policy wonks looking to create ever more rules and regulations. This is not about Bloomberg’s vision of a healthier New York by way of changing soda cups.

This is about our own vision for a healthier way of life. One that begins in our schools, workplaces and communities. Because this is a cultural vision.

Never in my lifetime did I think I would be living in a state that allowed marijuana retailers to occupy the same neighborhood shopping space as my bank or dry cleaner. If we can collectively decide to do something as seemingly radical as legalizing certain narcotics, is it too little to expect that we can experiment with ways to quit eating so gosh-darned much food by rethinking how we approach eating and snacking in our schools and workplaces?

More importantly, if we capture these kids while they’re still young and can shift their thinking with regard to acceptable eating practices, imagine how quickly we can effect cultural change for future generations to come!

Plenty of well-meaning folks have been complaining about large food companies and their products for decades. And we’ve been teaching kids and adults about proper eating habits for far longer. Maybe it’s time we give culture a try?


Culture Health & Wellness Point Of View


As leaders in the study of American food culture, The Hartman Group has been tracking how Americans shop for food since the 1990s. From one-stop shopping to multichannel shopping to online markets and click-and-collect, we continue to track consumers’ evolving perceptions, needs, habits and relationships with food retailers. New to the 2017 report is a special section on the expansion of the discount grocery channel, the emerging fresh-format channel and smaller-footprint retail formats.


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