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Sweetgreen CEO criticized after blaming obesity for COVID-19 deaths

In a now-deleted post, Sweetgreen CEO Jonathan Neman downplayed the importance of vaccines and said that healthy eating could help control COVID-19.

Sweetgreen CEO Jonathan Neman is facing backlash online after sharing a LinkedIn post that downplayed the importance of coronavirus vaccines and other mitigation strategies and instead claimed that "health mandates" could help end the pandemic.

While the LinkedIn post was removed, it was captured on the Wayback Machine, an Internet archive that stores website data. In the post, Neman wrote that "no vaccine or mask will save" people from the coronavirus, though he did note that he himself has been vaccinated, and suggested the idea of "health mandates" and taxes on things like processed food and refined sugar to "pay for the impact of the pandemic."

"Is there an underlying problem that perhaps we have not given enough attention to? Is there another way to think about how we tackle “healthcare” by addressing the root cause?," asked Neman. "... Our best bet is to learn how to best live with (coronavirus) and focus on overall health vs preventing infection."

Neman's post also said that "78% of hospitalizations due to COVID are (in) Obese and Overweight people." However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 73% of Americans are overweight, and over 40% are classified as obese.

Sweetgreen did not respond to a request for comment from TODAY Food.

The backlash to Neman's post was swift, with many criticizing the CEO for being privileged and highlighting the hypocrisy of selling meals that are too expensive for many people to consume regularly.

Maya Feller, a registered dietitian based in New York City, said that Neman's comments ignore the complexity of health.

"It is so complicated and multifactoral ... There's systemic reasons why people don't have access to safe, affordable, nutritious foods," Feller said. "It is so narrow for us to think that if we have everybody eating a salad that all of a sudden, everything's going to be OK. ... It's incredibly narrow to say that food is the way out."

Some on social media pointed out that salad toppings like dressings, nuts and cheese can lead to the meal having more fat or calories than a fast-food meal.

Feller said that there are concrete ways Neman could encourage healthy eating among those who aren't regularly eating at Sweetgreen, but those methods aren't as simple as sharing a post on LinkedIn or building another location of the salad chain.

"He could go into a community and say 'How can I serve you, what can my company do to help you?' and that's really where these conversations have to start," Feller said, recounting a project she had seen in New York City where an organization worked with a Brooklyn neighborhood to develop a community garden where residents chose what crops were planted. "They planted things that the kids thought were delicious, so now they're actually serving the community, as opposed to someone from the outside coming in and saying 'We think this is what's best for you.'"

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