The breakfast had all the right fixins: Crispy fried bacon. Fresh eggs. Grits. Not exactly what you might expect to accompany a high-level discussion of healthful eating in the African-American community. But that’s exactly what it was, and the implications of that discussion could have a major impact on the health of poor people around the country.
Daron Watts, 37, a partner at Sidley Austin Brown & Wood, is no small thinker (and not a small eater, either). The super-sized idea he brought to the table was nothing less than a plan to attack the growing health crisis of obesity among American minorities. Across from him, sharing the grits and the dream, was Dr. Garth Graham, deputy assistant secretary for minority health for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).
What’s needed, Watts told Graham, is a new coalition to promote minority health that would bring together Uncle Sam, the major food manufacturers and community leaders from across the nation to find ways to bring healthful eating to poor communities. Watts came to the table with more than just a big idea, though. He is the head of Sidley Austin’s West Coast Food and Drug Practice and brings with him a vital constituency — food manufacturers. He represents such FDA-regulated companies as Atkins Nutritionals, Colgate-Palmolive, Herbalife International, Genentech and the Nutritional Food Association, the nation’s oldest and largest food trade industry group.
An expert on the food and drug industry, he has become a top speaker on health and nutrition law around the nation. “I wanted to focus on the low-hanging fruit that plagues minority communities — obesity, coronary heart disease and other minority ailments,” he says. “I’ve lost a few of my aunts and uncles prematurely, so I decided that I’m not going to just sit back and collect my check. I’m going to do something.”
“Daron’s vision of stamping out obesity in the African-American community was refreshing to hear, because that has been our vision as well,” says Deputy Assistant Secretary Graham. “The bottom line is that he didn’t just recognize the problem, he genuinely wanted to do something about it.”
And so, in 2004, the nonprofit Coalition to Promote Minority Health was born.
A Ride Through the Neighborhood
Driving and walking through South Los Angeles with Watts is like cruising the hood with Sgt. Joe Friday. Only instead of junkies, Watts sees junk calories: The 20-foot doughnut atop the Randy’s Donuts landmark; the miles of fried chicken shacks, soul food diners and burger joints; the liquor stores with few fresh food markets in sight. And behind each greasy spoon lurks telling numbers. Blacks are three times more likely than whites to be obese and twice as likely to have diabetes. In Los Angeles County, more than one in four African Americans over 65 have contracted the disease, versus one in eight whites. And blacks suffer between 30 and 40 percent higher rates of cardiovascular disease.
“Here we go, lots of commerce and nothing healthy,” laments Watts, pointing to a particularly greasy chicken joint. “I would just like to see some mom-and-pop healthy choices here as well.” Watts continues driving a few miles farther to his neighborhood of Ladera Heights. This upper-middle-class enclave of mostly minority professionals is where he tore down an aging rambler and replaced it with one of the largest houses on the street.
When the 5-foot-8-inch baby-faced attorney gets excited, which is often, he launches each statement with a mild stutter, finished by a deep laugh. Walking his neighborhood, Watts looks almost like a politician, doing a quick lay-up with a 10-year-old boy, joking with his barber, Butch, who runs a shop behind his house, and high-fiving Blake at Woody’s Bar B Que, where he goes for chicken links before taking his wife and two children to a Dodgers game.
Watts didn’t start out as an expert on eating right, though food has always played a big part in his life. His father was one of the first African Americans to own a McDonald’s franchise. He attended the University of San Diego, graduating with a major in international relations. After graduating from the University of Southern California Law School, he joined Sidley Austin in 1994, where he demonstrated a tenacity at litigation coupled with a charm that encouraged out-of-court settlements. His talents brought him to the attention of the higher-ups in the firm, and in 1999, when Sidley needed a lawyer to handle its food and drug department in Los Angeles, they asked the 30-year-old Watts to handle the job. Watts jumped at the chance, knowing it meant he would become a partner.
Before long he was deeply into the food business, helping manufacturers navigate regulations for supplements and fortifications such as vitamin C. He helps companies develop good manufacturing practices and determine serving sizes, and pleads their cases before federal drug and trade administrations.
One of his current cases involves determining serving sizes on such items as individual packages of potato chips. Regulators are pressuring manufacturers to state the calorie content for the entire package, not to subdivide the package into smaller serving sizes, so as to give consumers the appearance of fewer calories. And if you’ve ever looked at the label of a low-carb food, you’ll see what is called the “net carb” number. It was Watts’ work that resulted in the net carb blurb, following a tug of war between regulators and food makers.
Food company officials and legislators praise Watts for his high energy, enthusiasm and knowledge of food and drug issues. Jim Potter, general counsel for Del Monte Foods, says his company was one of the first to join Watts’ Minority Health Coalition. Today, Del Monte even tailors certain food products toward minority health.
“He has great access to the FDA and decision makers; he has been very helpful in understanding how the FDA works,” says Potter, who is African American. “What Daron is doing is so important. He focuses on understanding the complexity of the problem [and then on taking action] on three to four things that will have an impact.”
The government is an important part of Watts’ healthful-eating coalition. He works closely with members of the Congressional Black Caucus to get their support in promoting minority health. Chicago’s U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. says of Watts, “I’ve not met many people quite like Daron, who outside of government, has dedicated his life to promoting better ways to help change the profound gaps in health in our society.” Jackson Jr., the son of the civil rights leader, is an important advocate for minority health. “For a major law partner to work to change these gaps, that’s commendable,” Jackson says. “He has my ear. Daron’s is an important voice.”
Watts spends a great deal of his time building the Coalition. But he has another great passion, too, and that is giving young minority attorneys a leg up in the business. He’s especially proud of his outreach to prospective minority attorneys. As leading mentor at Sidley Austin, he has helped draw top law students from USC, raising the number of minority recruits by 50 percent. “I never had the benefit of someone telling me the where-to-go-to-college game, the how-to-get-into-law-school game, the how-to-intern game, the how-to-succeed-in-the-summer-program [game],” he says. “That’s why I go back to school in the fall to explain those things to student groups.”
And although Watts hits Jamba Juice for a wheat grass cocktail every morning after a 20-minute run through his neighborhood, he understands — and too often falls prey to — the temptations of intemperate eating, largely because of what he calls the “soul food phenomenon.” “If I have a celebration at my house, I’ve got to serve soul food, greens or mac and cheese, fried chicken, hot water corn bread” he says, before whipping into Woody’s. “It’s expected. It’s part of the culture; I love it too. But we’ve got to find a way to educate the community that this is a problem, that this can kill us if we’re not careful. We’ve got to bridge the cultural gap.”