Obesity in the United States is at epidemic levels — enough so that first lady Michelle Obama recently called childhood obesity a “national security threat.” The World Health Organization ranked the U.S. as having the highest obesity rate in the world.

Activists, medical experts and politicians point to fast food as the culprit. And what’s the most popular fast food in America? Pizza. That’s where New Orleans-based Naked Pizza saw an opportunity.

“Fast food is part of who we are,” said Naked Pizza co-founder Jeff Leach. “Doing away with it is the wrong conversation. We think that fast food can be part of the solution, not the problem.”

Naked Pizza’s solution is to create the world’s largest grass-roots health organization to influence public health policy, one slice at a time. Its strategy: Create a better-tasting and healthier product, and scale its business to achieve cultural influence.

The world’s healthiest pizza?
When Leach co-founded Naked Pizza in 2006, he wanted to get people’s attention — and he did, but it was the wrong kind. The company’s original name, “The World’s Healthiest Pizza,” posed challenges from day one. It created “anxiety” by confusing consumers, since pizza wasn’t perceived as being healthy. A little over a year later, the name was changed to Naked Pizza to appropriately describe the pizza as being organic and natural.

“We wanted to create a better-tasting product that is actually good for you in a physiological way,” said Leach, “not in a marketing or branding way.”

After three years in their test kitchen, the founders devised a recipe that reduced the amount of calories, sodium and fat in a pizza without adding preservatives or antibiotics. Their formula even included a multi-grain crust to increase the amount of fiber — a win-win for customers’ taste buds and digestive health.

Have something to tweet about
Naked Pizza likes to call itself a “social media company that happens to sell pizza.” Based on its fervent activity on Twitter and Facebook, this description doesn’t seem far off. The company is even a top-10 case study on Twitter.

“By creating that relationship with the customer,” co-founder Randy Crochet said, “it becomes a very efficient marketing tool to drive the cash register.”

Naked Pizza uses social media to talk about its mission and ingredients, and to start relationships in new markets. Social media also provide potential investors an inside look into the company’s operations, in addition to playing a major role in promotions. Up to 30 percent of Naked Pizza’s sales are generated from social media promotions.

One thing that makes Naked Pizza stand out in a competitive industry is saying, or tweeting, things that Domino’s Pizza or Papa John’s can’t.

“We want to be a little more raw, a little bit less perfect in our conversations with people,” said Leach. “We want them to know that we’re willing to go on this discovery with them and we invite you on the journey with us.”

Franchising in bulk
To have a major influence in the national public health debate, Naked Pizza created a business plan to grow — and grow fast — through franchising.

“We need to get our message out there,” said Crochet, “and the fastest way to do it is through franchising. We’re using other people’s money to buy territories so that they can advance our mission for us.”

Their franchise model hinges on local developers with deep pockets (it costs between $250,000 and $300,000 to open a store) who can open up multiple stores in a region. Currently, there are seven stores open in the U.S., with more than $100 million in commitments for store development. Noted investors include Mark Cuban and The Kraft Group. In 2011, they’ll open an average of two stores a week domestically, as well as multiple locations in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

Why grow so fast?

“The health of the country is in free fall,” Leach said. “We need to do this now. If we don’t screw this up, then other businesses are going to have to follow us.”

Antonio Neves is an award-winning journalist, host of Business on Main’s Web series, “Cool Runnings,” and a correspondent for NBC NextMedia. Find out more at www.antonioneves.net.