Sweetgreen CEO Says Vaccines Aren’t the Way Out of COVID Pandemic

Shutting up is literally free, but then again, so is posting on LinkedIn, where Jonathan Neman, co-founder and CEO of Sweetgreen, recently published a post — which he then took down after Vice pointed it out — essentially blaming fat people for the ravages of the pandemic and calling on the government to create a “health mandate.” (It’s possible Neman is using a paid version of LinkedIn, but my point stands!!)

The crux of his argument was as simple as it is stupid. “78% of hospitalizations due to COVID are Obese and Overweight people. Is there an underlying problem that perhaps we have not given enough attention to?” the salad-chain founder, who made his fortune selling $11-$15 dollar Guacamole Greens salads and Shroomami bowls, wrote. “No vaccine or mask will save us.”

A screenshot showing Sweetgreen CEO Jonathan Neman’s anti-fat LinkedIn post.

This is why you always screenshot, kids.

While high BMI (itself a flawed, racist metric) was classified by the CDC as a risk factor for severe COVID, it’s important to note that vaccines can, actually, save us. As reported recently by CNN, data from the CDC shows that more than 99 percent of fully vaccinated people have not had a breakthrough COVID case resulting in hospitalization or death; recent data gathered by the New York Times suggests that the unvaccinated make up anywhere from 95 percent to 99 percent of all COVID-related hospitalizations right now. I’m not a CEO or anything, but even I can see that’s a pretty effective vaccine.

Neman, who says he is vaccinated (I guess in case his thinness and unlimited access to kale Caesars doesn’t protect him), has fallen for and perpetuated anti-fat bias. Weight and health are not synonymous, and to assume body size is a marker of health ignores the way in which anti-fat bias within the medical system harms fat people in the first place. Fat patients are routinely dismissed, their symptoms either ignored entirely or attributed to their size — a cycle in which these patients delay care, or at worst, end up without medical care, their real medical problems left untreated. It’s not hard to imagine why fat people subjected to worse medical care over the course of their lifetime than their thin counterparts might be more susceptible to COVID-19. And while being overweight has been established as a risk factor, at least one study has found that COVID patients with moderate obesity actually had a lower risk of death in the ICU.

But I’ve already spent more time thinking about fat people’s health care needs than Neman had before posting his screed, so let’s move on to his proposed solution, a “health mandate.” His idea, now stick with him here, okay, because it’s the kind of brave thinking that could only come from a man who co-founded a salad chain that praises itself for “thinking like a tech company” but really is a salad chain: “What if we made the food that is making us sick illegal? What if we taxed processed food and refined sugar to pay for the impact of the pandemic?” The argument mirrors that of fellow vegetable-peddler and Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, who argued in November 2020 against health care being an “intrinsic ethical right” because health care wouldn’t even be necessary if only people would change the way they “eat, the way they live, the lifestyle, and diet.”

I can think of plenty of reasons why a person who makes their money (lots of it!) by selling salad would want to make things that are not salad illegal, and the companies who make foods that are not salad pay more taxes. And I’m sympathetic to it, honestly. Sounds like a great business strategy, but one that, sorry to this salad man, won’t end the pandemic.

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