Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald wrote an opinion piece for the Coca-Cola Journey website that said “We must get our students moving, not only during the school day, but also after.”
When she was health commissioner of Georgia, the state with one of the highest rates of child obesity, Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald faced two enormous challenges: How to get children to slim down and how to pay for it.
Her answer to the first was Power Up for 30, a program pushing schools to give children 30 minutes more exercise each day, part of a statewide initiative called Georgia Shape. The answer to the second was Coca-Cola, the soft drink company and philanthropic powerhouse, which has paid for almost the entire Power Up program.
Dr. Fitzgerald is now in the spotlight as the Trump administration’s newly appointed director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, making her one of the nation’s top public health officials. And she finds herself facing a backlash from public health advocates for having accepted $1 million to fight child obesity from a company experts say is a major cause of it.
Her new position puts her at the helm of a federal agency that shook off its ties to the soda giant, in 2013, after concluding Coke’s mission was at odds with its own. But Dr. Fitzgerald suggested in an email response to questions from The New York Times this past week that she would consider accepting Coke money for C.D.C. programs and would evaluate any proposal through the agency’s standard review process.
Georgia Shape was established by Gov. Nathan Deal in 2011, after the legislature called for a statewide school fitness program, and was run by Dr. Fitzgerald. In 2013, Dr. Fitzgerald started Power Up for 30 with a million-dollar contribution from Coke. The money amounted to most of the program’s $1.2 million budget over the past four years.’
disease, kidney diseases, nonalcoholic liver disease, tooth decay and cavities, and gout, a type of arthritis.”
In a local television interview in May 2013, announcing a $3.8 million pledge from Coke, which would also be used to underwrite other exercise-related health programs, Dr. Fitzgerald said Power Up for 30 would add exercise before, during and after school. Noting that Georgia had moved up slightly from its position as having the second-most out-of-shape children in the nation, Dr. Fitzgerald said, “Thirty minutes of exercise will go a long way toward better health.”
After her new post was announced, U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit research group that focuses on transparency in the food business, sent journalists links to the broadcast along with emails between Dr. Fitzgerald and Coke officials.
Dr. Fitzgerald also said on the television show that Georgia Shape would push children to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables every day.
Coke — which, like the C.D.C., is based in Atlanta — has also had two employees on Georgia Shape’s advisory board, in various years. One was Rhona S. Applebaum, Coke’s chief science and health officer. She left the company in 2016 after The Times reported that she had helped orchestrate a strategy of funding scientists who encouraged the public to focus on exercise and worry less about how calories contribute to obesity.
Ben Sheidler, a Coke spokesman, said that someone from the Georgia Department of Public Health had solicited the grant for Power Up for 30 from Coke’s foundation, but that he did not know who it was.
The program emphasized Coke’s longtime contention that exercise is the key to weight loss. A search of the program’s website turned up no mention of the role of sugary drinks and sodas in weight gain. The company has spent millions on studies that support exercise over reducing soda consumption, and that, critics say, deflect attention from the role sugar-sweetened beverages have played in the soaring rate of obesity and the spread of Type 2 diabetes among children.
But numerous other studies, including research from the C.D.C., have come to the conclusion that sugar-laden drinks are a major factor contributing to obesity. The C.D.C.’s website notes: “Frequently drinking sugar-sweetened beverages is associated with weight gain/obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart