Michelle Obama plays referee in the food tug-of-war

September 18, 2013

First lady Michelle Obama speaks during an event about food marketing to children in the State Dining Room of the White House on  Sept. 18 in Washington. Obama wants food makers and entertainment companies to spend less time advertising sweet and salty foods to kids and more time promoting healthier options. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Michelle Obama used the pull of the White House Wednesday to convene a meeting on food marketing to children, stepping directly into the tug-of-war between health advocates and manufacturers of processed food.

In opening remarks, the first lady asked the dozens of players gathered — representatives from organizations as varied as Taco Bell and the American Heart Association — to agree to work together on marketing healthy food to children.

“Whatever we all might believe about personal responsibility and self-determination, I think we can all agree that it doesn’t apply to children,” Obama said, adding that she had a simple request: “Do even more and move even faster to market responsibly to our kids.”

The meeting in the State Dining room was another sign that Obama, who has become widely known for her campaign against childhood obesity, is more forcefully taking on the role of referee between the politically opposed factions in the food wars. Her meeting, which the White House touted as the first of its kind, comes on the heels of fresh conversation sparked by reporting in the book “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us,” which lays out the ways the processed food industry has effectively marketed junk food to children.

Obama spoke of being a busy working mother reliant upon processed foods to feed her children. She recalled looking for juice boxes her daughters could drink in the back seat, cereal they could pour themselves and food she could pop into the microwave. Rather than beating down corporate food companies, Obama made the business case for healthier food options, saying that just as she had become a more nutrition-savvy mother so had many other Americans.

“Moms like me are relying on you to help our kids get excited about eating” healthy food, she said, adding that 86 percent of the products marketed to children are loaded with sugar, fat and salt. “Through the magic of marketing and advertising you all have the power to shape our kids tastes.”

Last year she was on hand for an announcement by Walt Disney Co. that it would ban advertising for junk food from its television channels and theme parks, and Obama said she would be happy to cheer other companies that made similar commitments. She has lauded lauded Birds Eye, a frozen food company for using characters from the show iCarly to market vegetables to kids.

But public health advocates remain suspicious, said Aviva Must, who chairs the department of public health and community medicine at Tufts School of Medicine.

“I think the food companies know a lot about marketing and if they are truly, sincerely marketing healthful foods, they can help shift child consumer demands to a more healthful product,” Must said. “The uneasiness is the extent to which they are sincere partners in changing eating habits.”

Two years ago the Obama administration tried to get the food industry to agree to marketing guidelines that asked companies to only market healthy food to children, Must said. The food industry bucked the attempt at government regulation and instead several large food companies came up with their own set of less stringent guidelines.

Obama, at Wednesday’s meeting, asked public health advocates worried about the intentions of the food industry to ensure that their criticism was constructive and to be “mindful that companies exist to make a profit.”

“We are not here to re-litigate controversies” or to have a “debate for the sake of making a point,” said Sam Kass, a White House chef and executive director of Let’s Move.

Following the first lady’s remarks Kass said the participants would hold two break out sessions and talk about their concerns.

Obama, who aides describe as a first lady looking to set specific benchmarks and goals, has remained relentlessly positive that movement can be made on the stubborn issue of childhood obesity.

“For the first time in decades we’re actually starting to move the needle on this issue,” Obama said. “Between 2008 and 2011, obesity rates among low-income preschoolers dropped in 19 states and territories across the country. And childhood obesity rates are falling in cities like New York and Philadelphia, and in states like California and Mississippi.”

Still, she said, “while we have made important progress, when one in three kids is still on track to develop diabetes, and when diet has now surpassed smoking as the number one risk factor for disease and death in this country, then we clearly have much more work to do.”

The first lady said she’s seen cultural change around healthy eating, including “chain restaurants selling kale salad” and churches serving grilled fish and brown rice rather than fried chicken and macaroni and cheese. She suggested food companies could do more to help change children’s eating habits.

“As we all know, treats are one of the best parts of being a kid,” Obama said, noting that she isn’t trying to take those away. “Instead, the goal here is to empower parents instead of undermining them as they try to make healthier choices for their families. And we need you to lead the way in creating demand for healthy foods so that kids actually start ‘pestering’ us for those foods in the grocery store.”

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Watch Olympian Michelle Kwan, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, White House Let’s Move Executive Director Sam Kass and others discuss strategies that are reducing the number of obese children, Friday, Sept. 20, from 9 to 2pm at www.washingtonpost.com/postlive/.

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has covered local businesses, traveled to El Salvador and Guatemala to tell stories of immigrants’ connections to their home countries and reported from the newsroom’s Prince George’s County bureau. More recently, she has written about civil rights, race and politics.
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