When did you start working with Michelle Obama?
I went to Washington in 2009 as a health policy fellow with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the National Academy of Medicine. It was a mid-career fellowship I did as a faculty member at the CU School of Medicine. As part of that fellowship, I was inducted into Mrs. Obama’s office, then continued for another year as her health care policy adviser.
Why did you apply for that scholarship? What interested you about that opportunity?
I have worked extensively in advocacy and politics. This is one of my academic interests and I used to teach defense and politics in medical school. When it seemed like health care reform would be a presidential priority under President Obama, I decided to do a health care policy scholarship. I got lucky and went to Washington to work on what was then developing as the Affordable Care Act. This was when the First Lady was developing her work in childhood obesity prevention and nutrition, and her team i she asked if I wanted to work with her during my fellowship. I helped start the program that was her signature childhood obesity prevention initiative called Let’s Move!, and that’s what I mostly worked on when I was in her office.
What was it like working with Michelle Obama in the White House?
She is everything she appears to be: brilliant, creative, and deeply caring. At the time, America didn’t know it as well. She had just been in the White House for a year. It was an incredible experience to help develop that initiative. I learned more than I ever could have imagined about health policy and all the different aspects that affect children’s health and the different policy levers to impact it. Whether it was working in schools or trying to overcome what we used to call food deserts or developing the new MyPlate nutrition guide to replace the food pyramid, all of these were health policy issues we worked on. I’ve had the incredible good fortune to get to know her and sit down with her and think of new ideas.
What did you take away from that experience when you returned to CU School of Medicine?
So many things. I went to Washington thinking I was going to immerse myself in health care and health policy. But I’m back as a health policy officer, and it’s very different. There are so many health influencers outside the healthcare system. I had always thought about social policy and the social determinants of health; this is what I taught for a long time in medical school. So, going back, having had that experience working with 15 different federal agencies and stakeholders of all kinds, from professional sports organizations to food companies, I had completely changed my perspective. It was transformative and I have been working on children’s health policy ever since.
How did you join PLEZi?
I was contacted by Debra Eschmeyer, the former executive director of Let’s Move! She was assembling a small team of consultants who could think about child nutrition in a more contextual and comprehensive approach. It’s not just a food company; it is about providing healthier alternatives to those that currently exist, and it does so in the context of education and support for parents and families. She reached out to me, along with this other small group of advisers, and I thought, This is a good idea. I’m in good company. It is a real privilege to be in this space again.
What is the idea behind the company and its products?
We have known about our challenges with weight and nutrition for a long time. And for all the ways we’ve tried to make a difference, when you look at populations, things are getting worse, rather than better. I know parents are doing the best they can with what they have, but there is no 100% easy and affordable access to healthy foods. Many times we just have to put something on the table.
We’ve been conditioned to love sugar and sweetness in virtually every meal we have. The approach with PLEZi is to try to change the sweetness expectation. The drink we recently introduced seeks to match the natural sweetness of a fruit. There is some sweetness in these drinks, but 75% less sugar than a regular sugary drink. It’s about trying to get to a more normalized level and see if we can, in younger children, change their palate and expectations a bit.
We also get there from a public health point of view. The reality is that our food industry has a huge influence over what we eat. That’s why we’re going down this path, to say, here’s something else, and maybe that’s going to encourage and challenge and push other big players in the food industry as well to switch to healthier choices.
How does your role on the advisory board work?
There will be much more than just the first PLEZi Nutrition drink. There will be plenty of publicly accessible education and information. We’re just getting started at this point, but we’ve had an amazing meeting with fellow advisers and Mrs. Obama to talk about what’s important, what’s really going to matter, and what’s going to have an impact. My role will continue to evolve, but for now it’s about offering what I can, from my perspective as a pediatrician, as well as my public health and policy expertise, to help develop this educational platform.
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