February 27, 2013

Courtland Milloy’s column today takes Michelle Obama to task for pursuing essentially a trivial agenda as first lady. Instead of just “telling kids to eat their peas or show them how to Hula-Hoop,”  Mrs. Obama should be helping our children “build strong minds,” Milloy suggested. He added that the first lady should do more to leverage her own story of determination and be a role model for minority girls (especially) to give them a greater sense of their own possibilities.

I’d like to add my voice to what I imagine will be a chorus of boos for Mr. Milloy’s column. He fails to appreciate the substantive contribution Mrs. Obama is making to perhaps the most serious public health challenge facing the United States: childhood obesity. The rates are staggering and well-known — obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents in the past 30 years; in 2010, more than one-third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese — and this problem disproportionately affects minority communities. The first lady isn’t just playing with hula hoops, she is leading a cooperative effort with food and drink manufacturers, the NFL and others to raise awareness and promote solutions to the problem. And there is evidence that Mrs. Obama’s contribution is making a difference. 

Lowering obesity rates is a huge, perhaps historic achievement.  The savings to our country’s health care system could be enormous; the impact on the physical and psychological well-being of our kids tremendous. Being fat and pre-diabetic is not the most conducive path to success, no matter how inspired you might be by a role model’s personal story. The first lady is shining a light on the importance of locally grown, or “slow,” food. Helping educate kids about whether their food comes from and the connection between it and their health is also not trivial; it is critical to public health and a sustainable food supply.

Yes, the first lady has some fun, dancing on late-night TV and opening an Oscar envelope. But she is deathly serious about a life-saving mission.