CAMDEN, N.J. – The Campbell Soup Co. is planning to spend $10 million over the next decade on a new initiative to reduce obesity and hunger among children in Camden, the company’s impoverished hometown.
Company officials plan to announce the initiative Wednesday but gave The Associated Press details in advance.
“We want to build hope in Camden,” Campbell President and CEO Douglas Conant said. “And we think we can.”
The iconic company was founded in Camden in 1869 and has kept its headquarters here even as the city transformed from an industrial dynamo to one of the nation’s poorest cities. But the relationship hasn’t always been easy: Campbell closed its last canning facility in the city 20 years ago. And as recently as five years ago, the company was considering moving out.
But it decided to stay, expand and upgrade its campus, and take charge of redevelopment of a swath of land nearby. The centerpiece of that effort, a showy new building at the heart of the company headquarters, opened last year.
Conant said that when the company decided to stay, its officials also decided to try to do more for Camden — even beyond the $1 million or so a year the company’s foundation regularly gives to various causes in the city.
The hard-luck city, which has seen all its major manufacturing operations close, is made up of low-income neighborhoods. Boarded-up, abandoned houses are common. So is drug-dealing on the streets and prostitution. One national survey regularly finds Camden to be one of the most crime-ridden places in the U.S.
Campbell officials have been particularly struck by problems that revolve around food. The company, long a purveyor of vegetables in its soups and V-8 juices, has made efforts to become — and bill itself as — a prime maker of healthy options. It has reduced sodium in many of its soups and other products and introduced whole-grain Pepperidge Farm Goldfish crackers, among other health-oriented developments.
The goal of the initiative is to reduce obesity and hunger among Camden’s 23,000 children by half by 2020.
The issues of childhood obesity and hunger have gotten more attention lately in part because first lady Michelle Obama has made them her project. But Campbell executives say they wanted to address the problems even before the spotlight shined on them.
Kim Fremont Fortunato, who was hired late last year to head up the anti-obesity efforts, said she recently shadowed a doctor who was treating a 5-year-old Camden boy weighing 125 pounds. She said the doctor warned the boy’s grandmother that he would be diabetic by age 10 if his obesity wasn’t controlled.
Nearly 40 percent of the city’s children between 3 and 19 are obese — well above the national rate of 32 percent, according to research by the Rutgers State Center for Health Policy.
“It’s really important to know how urgent this issue is,” Fortunato said. “If we don’t act now, we’re going to lose a generation of kids.”
The issues of hunger and obesity seem contradictory, but they often go together, said Jeffrey Brenner, a Camden family doctor and health care advocate.
“If you’re worried about affording food, you might be stretching your dollar to get the highest calorie food, which may not be healthy,” said Brenner, who is part of the Campbell team working on the issues.
It is pulling in outside experts and groups, including The Food Trust, the Y and the Camden Children’s Garden, to work on three main strategies to reach its goal.
The first is increasing access to affordable and healthy food in a city with only one supermarket, and where many people shop at corner stores that don’t have a lot of fruit and vegetables. The plans include working with those small stores and starting more community vegetable gardens.
The second is getting kids to exercise more, in school gym classes and elsewhere.
The third is increasing education about nutrition and health.
Campbell also plans to roll out the initiative eventually in other cities where it has facilities, such as Norwalk, Conn., Napoleon, Ohio, and Sacramento, Calif.
Company officials say it will take changing behaviors over the next decade to reduce obesity in Camden.
“This is a big goal for a big problem,” Conant said.
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