New book on complex issues around food marketing and childhood obesity inspires thought leadership event

In one chapter of “Advances in Communication Research to Reduce Childhood Obesity,” the challenge of trying to reign in the pervasive influences that lead to unhealthy diets and overweight young people becomes painstakingly clear.

Rutgers Business School Professor Jerome Williams, who explores how pervasive marketing of unhealthy foods is often directed at people of color and low-income areas in the book, recounted how an effort to control the number of fast food restaurants in certain neighborhoods in California wasn’t so easy.

“There was push back,” Williams, one of the editors of the book, said during a recent thought leadership event at RBS to showcase the professor's work, “because there were people who worked in the fast food restaurants and there were people who owned the restaurant franchises.”

“It shows what can happen,” he said, “when we try to deal with this problem.”

Professor Jerome Williams seated next to Minette Drumwright at RBS book event. Photos by Jennifer Martinez.

In a new 544-page book, Williams and his co-editors, Keryn Pasch explore the powerful marketing tactics that influence the diets of children and teenagers, the policy questions raised by pervasive advertising as well as possible strategies for addressing childhood obesity, an issue that is as complex as it is troubling.    

Rutgers Business School hosted an event on May 7 to discuss the book as well as some of the implications of the obesity issue and to highlight the efforts currently underway in Newark to help children eat better and be more active. RBS professor Jeffrey Robinson was moderator, guiding the panel discussions and fielding questions from the audience. The exchange between audience members and the speakers added another layer to the provocative conversation around the research and the obesity issue.

Williams, who teaches multicultural marketing and urban enterprise development, is a professor in the Department of Management and Global Business. He is also the prudential chair in business and the research director of The Center of Urban Entrepreneurship & Economic Development.      

Williams and Pasch were joined by several contributors to the book: Minette “Meme’’ Drumwright, an associate professor in the College of Communication at the University of Texas; Jennifer Harris, director of marketing at Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity; and Anthony Signorelli, vice president and campaign director at the Advertising Council.

The discussion opened with each speaker describing the information and perspective contained in the chapters they contributed to the book, but they also spoke about the implications of the issue on the nation and the business community.

While Harris acknowledged that some progress has been made in getting the industry to change its ways by spotlighting its practices, Drumwright described “profound’’ disagreement between the food and beverage industries and public health advocates over the obesity issue, and more specifically, who is  responsible for it.

“They see the obesity problem as multi-faceted but they come at it from very different views,” Drumwright said. “We feel there are incentives for both groups to come together.”

Another panel of speakers featured three women who are currently working in Newark as part of state and local efforts to improve nutrition, food quality and advocate for healthier behavior, especially among children.

Courtney Price, project manager for NJ Partnership for Healthy Kids-Newark

"This is where the rubber meets the road,” Robinson said as he introduced the panel – Elizabeth Reynoso, food policy director for Newark’s Office of Sustainability; Courtney Price, project manager for New Jersey Partnership for Healthy Kids- Newark; and Monique Baptiste, project director for Newark’s Strong, Healthy Communities Initiative.

Baptiste pointed out that one advantage the community groups have over the food industry and fast food restaurants is “access to the people.”

In Newark, there are efforts underway to expand the availability of fresh, healthy food through farm markets, community gardens and through the selection of foods offered for sale at neighborhood convenience stores.

Professor Williams with Larry Dahlstrom, a childhood friend who attended the book event.

There are also steps being taken in the schools to provide better food and more opportunities for children and teens to be active – and safe – in neighborhoods where life can be disrupted by street shootings.

“There isn’t one solution,” Courtney Price, project manager for the New Jersey Partnership for Healthy Kids-Newark said as the panel discussion was coming to a close. “If there was,’’ she said, “I don’t think this book would be so thick.”

The event, which was held in Bove Auditorium, also offered Williams and Pasch an opportunity to talk about the work that went into producing the book. Along with Chiquita Collins, who did not attend the event, Williams and Pasch worked with 50 scholars – including Drumwright, Harris and Signorelli – who contributed to the book’s 24 chapters.

They had weekly discussions, good synergy and an intense collaboration – even among camps with intensely different views on the issue central to the book.

“It really took priority over our lives for two years,” Williams said.

-Susan Todd

TAGS: Jeffrey Robinson Jerome Williams Management and Global Business Marketing Newark Research Thought Leadership