Startups compete to fight childhood obesity

By Erika Fry

Ray Newlands calls himself “just a little guy from South Florida.” Kids call him “Short Chef”.  And while those descriptions are physically apt — he’s 5’5” — height is not what Newlands is known (or named) for: He wears shorts while he cooks. And he gets big laughs.

His gags? He makes PBB&J (peanut butter banana and jelly on a hot dog bun). He jokes about eating palm trees (he gets kids to try hearts of palm). And in his piece de resistance, “salad in a swimming pool,” children dump sand buckets of vegetables into a plastic kiddie pool while Short Chef tosses with oars.

That may seem corny, but it’s a healthy eating schtick that sticks with Short Chef’s target audience — kids. (Parents in Broward County tell him their kids can’t get enough salad.) And it’s a formula — food education a la funny bone — that Newlands hopes will help reverse the nation’s obesity epidemic.

Newlands, who has worked in the food and beverage industry for decades, took up the cause and his “Short Chef” persona in 2005, partly with his son Max (now 16) in mind. “I had a heart attack. My parents had heart attacks. My grandparents had heart attacks. This stuff keeps me up at night,” he says.

He now gives his culinary and nutrition lessons at dozens of Miami-area schools, organizations and events each year. He’s also cut back on his catering business, and with the support of grants, sponsorships and his pro bono agent Rudy, turned Short Chef into near full-time work.

Now Newlands wants to take his campaign nationwide — he envisions a Short Chef bus tour or a television show like Schoolhouse Rock. He hopes he’ll get that break in the End Childhood Obesity Innovation Challenge, a competition sponsored by Partnership for Healthier America, a non-profit that works with the private sector to fight youth obesity. PHA, which was founded in 2010 in conjunction with Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative, launched the Innovation Challenge earlier this year to find new and creative solutions to the nation’s youth obesity problem. Youth obesity rates have more than tripled in the past 30 years, according to the CDC.

Individuals were invited to pitch their ideas via two and a half minute videos, ten of which — Newlands among them — have been selected as semi-finalists. (Drew Nannis, PHA’s Chief Marketing Officer, says judges watched hours of video submissions.)

This group will be further streamlined through public voting that runs through Feb. 1 on the competition’s website. The top three winners will advance to PHA’s Building a Healthier Future Summit in March, where judges and Summit attendees will select the winning idea. (Time Inc., Fortune‘s owner, is a sponsor the Summit.)

Should Newlands win, he’ll receive a prize package any fledgling entrepreneur would covet: $10,000, and marketing and strategy advice from leaders at McKinsey, Edelman, and StartUp Health. (Not to mention some face time with a Fortune editor.)

But ‘Short Chef’ faces stiff and equally ambitious competition. Among the other Innovation Challenge semi-finalists: Olympians, professional dancers, and a particularly savvy 14-year old. Joined in their commitment to fight childhood obesity, their ideas, many of which are based on small-scale efforts already underway, are as wide-ranging as their profiles.

Here are a few:

There’s Gary Hall, the three-time Olympic swimming medalist who in 2009 founded World Fit, a US Olympics-affiliated non-profit that promotes youth fitness in communities through a 40-day walking competition. In a 21st century twist, students log their miles on an app specially developed for World Fit — a feature that Hall says gets kids excited about old-fashioned exercise.

Katie Hensel, a young mother in Wisconsin, left her job in 2011 as a project manager at a healthcare software company to start Tri 4 Schools, a non-profit that takes aim at child obesity by hosting triathlons for children aged 3 to 14. (The races are age appropriate — three year olds swim 25 yards, with the assistance of a water noodle if necessary). Entry fees are donated to local schools, which use the money for health education and fitness equipment.

Fourteen-year old Carter Kostler, a high school freshman in Virginia Beach, Virginia, dreamed up Define Bottle, a sleek, eco-friendly and portable product that makes fruit-infused water, a healthy alternative he hopes kids will choose over soda.

For other semi-finalists, their ideas and commitment are rooted in their own struggles with obesity. Dennis Ai, a senior at Northwestern and the founder of JiveHealth, was inspired to develop a video game that will help kids understand healthy eating because of his own experience as an overweight adolescent.

And Amy Jordan founded Sweet Enuff, a labor of love that targets children affected or most vulnerable to diabetes and obesity with hip-hop dance and health education. Jordan, who herself who worked as a professional dancer, suffers from diabetes. Sweet Enuff has operated intermittently with the support of grants and sponsorships since 1997 and is staffed with professional dancers and health coaches who work in community organizations and youth centers, most of them in Harlem, for eight weeks each spring.

Like many of her fellow semi-finalists, Jordan, who is already working on codifying curriculum and scaling her organization, looks to the Innovation Challenge with hopes to grow, learn, and be discovered as an important player in the fight against childhood obesity.

What would that mean? Making a difference, nationwide one day, and getting Sweet Enuff’s kids on America’s Best Dance Crew. “It’s a dream,” she says, “but it could happen.”


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