Apr 11, 2017

Joannah and Brian Lawson on their Vision for Child Nutrition

Philanthropists Joannah and Brian Lawson
By Carolyn Morris

Joannah and Brian Lawson are determined to improve childhood nutrition, and to curb an alarming increase in chronic disease. The philanthropists behind the Joannah and Brian Lawson Centre for Child Nutrition spoke with Faculty of Medicine writer Carolyn Morris about what drives them to invest in this cause.

Why is improving childhood nutrition so important for you?

Joannah: If you start changing things in childhood, you have the greatest opportunity to have a bigger impact on a person’s life, by starting to shift eating habits early on. And you have more years to make a difference in that person’s life — it’s going further upstream to get to the root of the problem. And even further upstream is prenatal care for mothers who are expecting. The greatest impact on life-long health is what happens pre-birth, with the developing fetus, and in the early years of life.

Brian: There’s another significant benefit to that — and that’s the parents. Parents often try to eat healthier when kids come along. So in a way, it’s like an inflection point. By focusing on childhood, you end up reaching the parents as well.

What do you see as some of the biggest challenges we face in childhood nutrition?

Joannah: The lack of nutrients in food we give children. Even children who are overweight are nutrient deficient, in most cases. And research shows childhood obesity rates are the highest they’ve ever been. Life expectancy for these children is expected to be shorter than their parents.

Brian: Another challenge is knowledge. There is so much becoming known through research and experience. But at the same time, it’s incredibly challenging to make sense of it because there’s so much noise. Given better information, people will make better decisions.

Joannah: There are financial reasons as well, with the unsustainability of the health-care system when faced with high levels of chronic disease. It would be a shame to undermine public health care because we can no longer afford it, with so many people having expensive health-care requirements. If you prevent chronic disease, you reduce suffering, improve quality of life and improve economic outcomes. It’s a win-win-win.

What are we up against when trying to change how we feed our families?

Joannah: It’s not easy. There’s been a disruption, with many of our food traditions no longer being passed down, and processed food replacing home cooking. Industry benefits from lower-cost ingredients that help margins, so there’s an inherent conflict in getting the best nutrients into our food supply — that’s not necessarily part of the food industry’s mandate.

Brian: And there’s a vicious cycle with fast food, processed food, where we’re making it easier for people to access poor food. This then reinforces some of our changes in lifestyle. It’s kind of ironic that parents these days spend so much time bringing kids to activities here and there. And as a consequence, they’re doing a drive-through, and feeding the kids chicken fingers and French fries. They’re doing all this running around to keep their kids healthy and active, but they’re not getting the nutritional foundation they need.

Joannah: And it’s hard for kids to choose a healthy snack like an apple over products that are hyper-appealing to the palette, because they have lots of salt and sugar and fat in them. There’s no one investing huge amounts of marketing on those apples, because there’s very little benefit to the food industry for a child to choose the apple. Another example of how we’re feeding our children is a child’s menu at a restaurant. It usually doesn’t have any vegetables because of the bias that kids won’t like them.

Brian: And it’s primarily wheat, tomato and cheese, in some combination – pasta, pizza, a cheese sandwich with ketchup. There’s no variety.

Joannah: I think it’s really sad that the people in our society who need the most nutrients — the ones who are growing — are the ones getting the least nutrients.

What are some of the advances the Centre for Child Nutrition has made so far that you are most proud of?

Joannah: I’m most proud that nutrition has been integrated into the medical school curriculum. That’s a game-changer. It’s systemic — it starts to change the conversations doctors will be having with their patients, from the moment they graduate or even when they’re doing their internship. There’s a multiplier effect that results from medical students including nutrition as one of the lenses for considering patient cases.

Brian: One of the things that reinforced this for us was a cardiologist telling us he had only had about one hour of formal nutritional training as part of his medical education.

Joannah: Yes, he told us that despite that, his job requires him to spend about 40 per cent of his time counselling his patients on food. He’s had to seek the training outside of medical school.

Why is it important for this Centre to be at U of T?

Joannah:  I think it’s key that the Department of Nutrition is part of the Faculty of Medicine at U of T. That is not the case at most universities, and it’s a unique advantage — a huge advantage. It shows that U of T recognizes the key role nutrition plays in health. U of T is also one of the top research universities in the world, it has huge global reach, and it has one of the largest medical schools in Canada. The multicultural nature of Toronto also provides a local community that represents a global population for any kind of research — even though a lot of research is being done in other parts of the world as well.

Brian: The other reason is that we have a single payer health system, and affiliations with a major network of research hospitals. This is enormously beneficial for research and collaboration.

Why do you feel it’s important to invest as a philanthropist, in improving society?

Joannah: I am driven to play my part in making the world a better place. The trick is just picking which part to focus on, and childhood nutrition made sense for us.

Brian: Societies are much stronger, and it’s much more meaningful to be part of them, when they’re collaborative in nature. It’s all about everybody pitching in whatever way they can.

Joannah: It feels good to contribute and to make a meaningful difference.