Michelle Obama talks to mayors about her initiative to combat childhood obesity

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 21, 2010

Better eating habits, improved nutrition and a more physically fit America do not have to come with a high price tag and all are imperative to this country's economy, its future productivity and the well-being of the next generation of children. That was the message first lady Michelle Obama delivered Wednesday afternoon to the U.S. Conference of Mayors at the Capital Hilton.

For more than 20 minutes, Obama highlighted the stark statistics related to childhood obesity: One in three children in this country is either overweight or obese. One-third of all children today will eventually suffer from diabetes. And a recent study found that obesity could be an even greater threat to the nation's health than smoking.

But all is not lost, Obama assured her audience -- an overflow crowd of some 200 mayors and their staff that greeted her entry with a standing ovation and a lone "whoof whoof" of approval. Help is coming in the form of a major initiative, Obama promised, as she beat the drumroll for the unveiling, in early February, of a wide-ranging program to combat childhood obesity. It will combine the resources of the federal government with the local efforts of mayors, the knowledge gathered by foundations and the tireless foot soldiers from nonprofit organizations.

"The idea here is very simple: to put in place commonsense, innovative solutions that empower families and communities to make healthy decisions for their kids," she said. Her initiative will focus on improved school lunches, more physical activity, increased availability of healthy food in all communities and more nutrition education for both kids and their parents.

And the mayors, she said, are key to making it all work. They can measure the impact of an overweight workforce on a community's economy; they understand the burdens an unhealthy population puts on neighborhood health centers; they witness kids laboring to walk, to run, to play.

"You see people's struggles up close and personal. And what you see on the ground is often the first indicator of what's happening on a national level," Obama said. "Many of you are already seeing some of the costs and consequences."

"One mayor told us that obesity can even impact economic development and job creation because CEOs and entrepreneurs worried about high employee health-care costs are sometimes reluctant to set up shop in areas with high obesity rates," Obama said in her speech.

The seeds for Obama's administration-wide initiative were planted -- literally -- in spring 2009 with the White House Kitchen Garden. "We didn't want to have a garden just to have a garden," said Jocelyn Frye, the first lady's domestic policy adviser, in an interview a few moments before Obama's speech. "It was a vehicle for talking about children's health."

In the fall, the first lady began to focus her concerns and hone her message, meeting with the Domestic Policy Council, headed by Melody Barnes, and key members of the president's Cabinet to discuss the best ways to chip away at the childhood obesity epidemic. "She knows full well that it's not a problem to be solved by government saying, 'Do this,' " Frye said. Obama also understands that "this is not a problem that can be solved in a vacuum." It requires input from the government and from everyday folks alike.

In her speech, and in a meeting with a few dozen mayors beforehand, the first lady highlighted best practices -- the often simple, and inexpensive, ideas that mayors have initiated in their own communities that have been successful and that have not stretched already strained budgets. One mayor in Texas gave students pedometers at the end of the school year so they could count their steps over summer vacation; another in Bowling Green, Ky., put the city's bike paths and trail maps online to make them more readily accessible; the mayor of Minneapolis brought farmers' markets to underserved neighborhoods; and the mayor of Oklahoma City challenged citizens to lose a million pounds and personally shed 40 pounds to set an example.

The problem of childhood obesity can be solved, she insisted to an audience that sat quietly during her speech, with only occasional chuckles when she empathized with the never-ending duties of City Hall. "We don't need to wait for some new invention or discovery to make this happen. This doesn't require fancy tools or technologies. We have everything we need right now," Obama said. "The only question is whether we have the will."

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