Sweetgreen CEO Promises to ‘Learn Forward’ After Blaming Overweight Americans for COVID Deaths

Jonathan Neman, co-founder and CEO of the salad maker Sweetgreen, issued a series of internal apologies to staff last week after publishing (and later deleting) a post on LinkedIn in which he placed blame for the severity of the COVID-19 crisis on overweight Americans and suggested the country should focus on fixing that “underlying problem” instead of the country’s broken healthcare system. 

But according to company Slack messages viewed by Motherboard, Neman has repeatedly pushed similar views inside the company in the past, suggesting that healthy eating is more important than better healthcare in improving people’s health—provided they make the right choices. (This presumably includes eating his expensive and not necessarily particularly healthy salads.)

In his LinkedIn post last week, Neman used a study that said “78 percent of hospitalizations due to COVID are Obese and Overweight people” to argue that the root cause of coronavirus-related death has to do with body-mass index. Neman went on to question the government’s handling of the pandemic, stating that “no vaccine nor mask will save us,” and floating the idea of “health mandates” that ban or heavily tax food offered by Sweetgreen’s competitors. (Neman’s approach has already been tried abroad in places like Britain, but failed to yield much more than campaigns built on shame and guilt.)

Just hours after deleting the post, Neman apologized for the comment in a Wednesday night company email, which had the subject “Learning Forward.”

“My intention was not to be discriminatory, or to discount the importance of getting vaccinated and wearing masks to combat COVID-19, which for the past 18 months has had a tremendous impact on the health and wellness of our communities,” Neman wrote. “My goal was to start a conversation around the systemic healthcare issues in the country. I now realize the way I went about doing that and my choices of words was [sic] insensitive. This is a learn-forward moment for me.”

“Looking to the future, my promise to this team is that our mission of connecting more people to real food will continue to be our North Star,” he added.

On Friday, in an email with the subject “A moment of gratitude + connection,” Neman apologized once more and said he planned to schedule a town hall-style meeting on Tuesday to discuss the issue. “I wanted to send a note of gratitude in light of the recent events that took place this past week,” he wrote. “I sincerely apologize for my actions that have impacted many of you, and want to acknowledge your leadership and agility during this challenging time.”

Sweetgreen did not immediately respond to Motherboard’s request for comment. After Motherboard’s deadline, Neman published on LinkedIn an edited version of the “learning forward” email that admitted he “oversimplified a very complex issue that is impacted by larger socioeconomic factors.”

But internal Slack messages shared with Motherboard show that Neman has repeatedly pushed questionable and controversial ideas about health and wellness internally. In March, Neman shared a meme in the company Slack that suggested that one of the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic was that if “they can make the entire world population wear masks in 4 months” and “can close businesses at will, without a thought for anyone’s livelihood,” then society could make people eat “eat vegetables or exercise” and close “the junk food producers or the porn industry.” 

The message received at least five “100” emojis and 11 emojis of a finger pointing up in response. 

Sweetgreen CEO Jonathan Neman shared the above meme in a company Slack channel in March.

Two months before that, in early January, a Sweetgreen employee shared a CNBC article that was headlined “Whole Foods CEO John Mackey: The ‘best solution’ is to not need health care and for Americans to change how they eat and live.” In response, Neman responded “AMEN!” Multiple employees took issue with Mackey’s comments shortly thereafter, saying in the same Slack channel that they oversimplified a complex issue. One said the comments overlooked the fact that healthy eating is not a “realistic, sustainable, attainable or accessible choice for so many due [to] a number of longstanding barriers like systemic racism.”

“I understand your POV as well,” Neman wrote in response. “And I do not believe that food alone can fully replace healthcare, but as a country we spend way too much time treating illness vs preventing it via food and lifestyle.”

Do you work at Sweetgreen? We’d love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Edward Ongweso JR securely on Signal on 202-642-8240 or email edward.ongweso@vice.com.

A month earlier, in December 2020, Neman also shared a series of stats about obesity and diet in the U.S., including the percentage of “ultra-processed” foods that make up the country’s daily calorie intake, the percentage of calories from added sugars, and the percentage of households that experience food insecurity during a given year. 

“troublesome situation, but it is also our opportunity,” one employee wrote in response.  

In the United States, 73 percent of the population is obese or overweight. It’s been well-established for years that this is not simply about what people choose to eat: A host of factors, such as geography, poverty, and unemployment, contribute at individual and community levels. Despite this, Neman has shown enthusiasm for the point of view of others like Mackey, who argued that obesity isn’t an “access problem” but a “market demand problem” that boils down to “poor choices, mostly due to ignorance.”

At other times during the pandemic, Neman has pushed employees to take advantage of the turmoil in the broader food services industry. In July 2020, he responded to an article posted in the Slack group “#realestatechatter” about “post-pandemic” opportunities in real estate, saying “Go get em! As long as ROI is there it’s our time to get aggressive.” A little over a week later, he shared an article about Pret a Manger getting out of the Boston and Chicago markets. He then said, “Find out who owns their debt. Get Aggressive.” 

The controversy comes at an inopportune moment for Neman and the rest of Sweetgreen, which Neman and fellow co-founders Nathaniel Ru and Nicolas Jammet started in 2007. In June, Axios reported that the company had confidentially filed to go public through an IPO.

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