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Michelle Obama and COVID-Minimizing Economist Hawk Kids' Drinks
The former first lady has tapped Brown University professor Emily Oster to advise her new beverage company.
Former First Lady Michelle Obama has teamed up with a controversial economics professor, who downplayed the dangers of COVID-19 in schools, to hawk nutrition products for kids.
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As first lady, Obama earned praise and criticism for making childhood obesity a cause with her “Let’s Move!” campaign, an initiative focused on getting kids active and ensuring schools were serving healthy lunches. On the surface, PLEZi Nutrition, which Obama joined as a co-founder and “strategic partner,” appears to be an extension of those efforts—a non-governmental, market-based solution to the larger problem of added sugar.
According to Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the average American, including children and teens, consumes 17 teaspoons of sugar daily due thanks to added sugars in food and drinks. This heightened sugar intake is fueling problems like obesity. Nearly 20 percent of American children and adolescents are obese according to the CDC National Center for Health Statistics, which can lead to other health problems like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, and breathing and joint problems. The American Heart Association has recommended cutting back on added sugar.
PLEZi’s stated mission is to “be a model of change...to show how food and beverage brands can support the health of our next generation.” But, the venture, which is backed by Juggernaut Capital Partners, the private equity firm of Obama Foundation mega-donor John Shulman, is more accurately understood as a beverage company, selling processed drinks aimed at young people.
To advise her new business, Michelle Obama has assembled a pool of talent that includes Brown University economics professor Emily Oster, a controversial figure for her parenting advice, which has included support for drinking alcohol during pregnancy, and her public health musings like arguing that treatments were not a cost-effective way to combat AIDS in Africa.
But what Oster is perhaps best known for today is her work related to COVID-19—more specifically, her advocacy against school closures in the face of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Oster’s public prognostications have made her a favorite of the political right, which has been fighting to undermine public health measures since the start of the pandemic in order to minimize economic disruption. But Oster’s contributions have helped perpetuate the public health crisis, which has killed more than 1.1 million Americans to date and left as many as 23 million Americans suffering long COVID as of November 2022.
“This Is Not My Field”
Early in the pandemic, before vaccines were available, parenting blogger Oster emerged as a leading voice for school reopening.
The author of “Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom Is Wrong—and What You Really Need to Know” (2013) and the New York Times bestselling “Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, from Birth to Preschool” (2019), Oster had made a name for herself with her brand of economic thinking applied to motherhood. Oster purported to use data to challenge medical orthodoxy, like recommendations against drinking alcohol during pregnancy.
According to both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, there is no safe amount of alcohol consumption while pregnant.
Oster had a significant, built-in readership that skewed well-off, white, and female, perfectly positioning her to become a voice for women who had been forced out of work by the pandemic and were increasingly frustrated by it.
In May 2020, the Washington Post published what would be the first of many Oster pieces arguing in favor of reopening schools. In "Opening Schools Might Be Safer Than You Think,” Oster argued that “small-scale early data” was encouraging, suggesting that children were less infectious than adults.
Reopening would become her mission. After President Trump tweeted, in capital letters, “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN” in early July 2020, Oster began researching school COVID safety, creating a dashboard to collect data from schools in 47 states.
Oster has been one of the most prolific voices for returning schools to normalcy amid the pandemic. Her work has found a home in major publications like The Atlantic, The New York Times, and WaPo as well as on various cable news channels. She has been profiled in the NYT, Rolling Stone, and Vox. Even Trump’s former CDC director, Robert Redfield, cited her work when he endorsed school reopening on November 24, 2020.
At the time, Oster told the press, “It is totally bananas,” explaining she was doing the best she could but noting, “This is not my field. It’s crazy.”
In retrospect, Oster’s work notoriously understated the risks of the virus to children and teachers while overstating the alleged harms of closures. For example, in an October 9, 2020, article for The Atlantic titled, “Schools Aren’t Super-Spreaders,” Oster claimed transmission in schools was low enough, and severe cases among children rare enough, that the costs of school closures—learning loss felt particularly by working-class students of color and student mental health distress—outweighed the risks presented by the virus.
“One might argue, again, that any risk is too great, and that schools must be completely safe before local governments move to reopen them,” Oster wrote, straw-manning her opposition, which included teachers’ unions. “But this approach ignores the enormous costs to children from closed schools.”
As we have previously reported, suicides among young people declined in 2020 during the closures as did mental health emergency room presentations. No study has isolated the impacts of closures from the broader impacts of living through a pandemic. Even the links between learning loss and closures are surprisingly tenuous.
On the other hand, an estimated 275,000 American children had lost a primary or secondary caregiver to COVID as of December 2022.
In their March 2022 takedown of Oster in Protean Magazine, Brown University postdoctoral research fellow Abigail Cartus and social epidemiologist Justin Feldman, a visiting scientist at Harvard’s FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, noted major flaws in “Schools Aren’t Super-Spreaders.”
“Oster’s signature style is approaching research claims with skepticism,” they wrote. “Yet she failed to state the critical limitations of her data in her Atlantic op-ed—except the limitations that biased the analyses in ways that reinforced her policy preferences.”
DC-based internist Dr. Ida Bergstrom, who has treated COVID and long COVID patients, told Important Context that Oster’s position on school closures was “myopic and very privileged” for failing to take into account various considerations including multigenerational households and older teachers or school workforce. Bergstrom said Oster had been wrong to downplay COVID spread in schools and the risks to kids, explaining that while young people have had lower morbidity or mortality than adults, COVID has still been “very significant” compared to other causes of death for those age groups.
“Throughout the pandemic, [Oster] misled parents by telling them what they most wanted to hear and claimed it was driven by ‘data,’ although her data was flawed,” Bergstrom said.
Indeed, in a piece for The Atlantic from May 2021, Oster asserted “Your Unvaccinated Kid Is Like a Vaccinated Grandma” and told parents to take summer vacations with their families without regard for the pandemic.
“We still have a ways to go, but the speed of the vaccination process in recent days makes quasi-normalcy by July seem not completely out of reach,” she wrote.
By August, however, the country was in the throes of another COVID wave, driven by the delta variant. Schools turned out to be sites of “significant” viral spread. The virus forced many to quarantine large numbers of students amid outbreaks.
Bergstrom told Important Context that Oster has yet to reckon with long COVID in children, noting that research suggests it could impact up to 25 percent of infected children. In September, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) updated its guidance on long COVID, explaining that pinning down an exact estimate for prevalence among children and adolescents is difficult, but estimates range as low as 2 percent and as high as 66 percent. According to AAP, the most likely range is between 2 and 10 percent—which still represents millions of American kids.
Bergstrom explained that physicians are now seeing “the myriad of cardiovascular and neurological ramifications of this virus.”
“[Oster] would not be a trusted or valued expert that I would ever look to for advice on children, children's health, or children's nutrition,” she said. “She has already shown that she is more interested in finding or promoting the data to suit her own, privileged agenda, one where the ‘rules’ don't apply to her.”
Despite the at times withering criticism of her work, Oster has attracted the attention of right-wing money. As Cartus and Feldman observed in their Protean piece, the Brown University professor has found allies in groups like the Manhattan Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, as well as the Cato Institute. The reason for these alliances, the scientists suggest, is Oster’s rejection of the precautionary principle.
“Long embraced by environmentalists, trade unionists, and public health experts, the precautionary principle comes into play in scenarios of scientific uncertainty about risks of harm; it holds that decisionmakers should err on the side of minimizing or eliminating a potential hazard, even if this might prove to have been an overreaction once more research becomes available,” they wrote. “Business interest groups, in seeking to expand corporate freedoms, use and promote the exact opposite interpretation of uncertainty.”
Billionaire advocates of school privatization have also latched onto Oster. In December 2020, Oster was one of the authors of a Schools and the Path to Zero guidance, sponsored by the New America Foundation, a group partly funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Gates is a member of the so-called “big three” privatization advocates. Meanwhile, Oster’s National COVID-19 School Response Dashboard was created in September 2020 with help from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and the Walton Family Foundation. Oster had first proposed such a project in an August 2020 op-ed for WaPo, arguing it would enable better risk assessment and calm parents’ and teachers’ fears of in-person learning amid a pandemic.
In September 2021, the Mercatus Center, a right-wing think tank based at George Mason University, helped her launch a Data Hub mapping school operations to provide a tool for researchers to study the impact of closures. Almost immediately, it began pushing out “preliminary research,” purporting to show a correlation between loss of in-person learning and lower standardized test scores. Subsequent research has found only a tenuous connection between back-to-school policies and academic performance.
The money for the data hub came from Republican billionaire megadonor Peter Thiel through a grant to Mercatus’s Emergent Ventures program. Oster’s new project was also bankrolled by the Walton Family Foundation, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, and Arnold Ventures, the investment fund of billionaire John Arnold.
In a January 2022 Twitter post, Oster thanked her wealthy benefactors while assuring her followers that their money had no influence on her work.
“Capitalist Grifting Disguising Itself”
Experts told Important Context that they were skeptical of Obama’s new project. PLEZi is the latest money-making venture associated with the former First Family.
The Obamas have found success in paid speaking gigs, Netflix production deals, and in setting up their own charitable foundation to which major capital interests like Goldman Sachs, Boeing, AT&T, Google, Walgreens, and billionaire Stephen Cloobeck have lavished with funding. The Obamas themselves have given more than $1 million in tax-deductible donations to their foundation. The former First Lady herself has also written two bestselling books, done an arena tour with surprisingly expensive tickets, and even appeared on the hit ABC sitcom, “Black-ish.”
Social epidemiologist Feldman suggested that as a private venture ostensibly aimed at solving a social problem, PLEZi fit squarely within the neoliberal framework of the former Obama administration.
“What interests me about this is that PLEZi is capitalist grifting disguising itself as a public health effort,” Feldman told Important Context. “It’s a for-profit company backed by a major Obama Foundation donor. In that sense, it aligns with Oster’s previous work.”
Bergstrom was similarly unenthusiastic about PLEZi, telling Important Context, “I think the ways to get Americans, including children, to eat more nutritiously is to move away from packaged, processed food selections and more towards whole foods like actual fresh fruits or vegetables.”
“I don't think promoting an expensive alternative to sodas that are ‘less bad’ is the goal we should be setting,” she said.
PLEZi produces various juice drinks with flavors like “Orange Smash,” “Sour Apple,” “Tropical Punch,” and “Blueberry Blast,” which contain fruit concentrates and extracts like stevia leaf, sodium citrate, citric acid, magnesium lactate, and the all-encompassing “natural flavor.” The juice comes in 8-ounce bottles, which Bergstrom notes is more than AAP recommends for fruit juice intake for children younger than 7.
“I also do not think there is a reason to introduce children to Stevia, an added sweetener,” she followed up.
Beyond the product itself, Bergstrom expressed skepticism over Oster’s involvement in the project, noting that “She has zero subject matter expertise in children or nutrition.”