First lady Michelle Obama: 'Let's move' and work on childhood obesity problem

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 10, 2010; C01

In front of a packed audience in the State Dining Room at the White House on Tuesday, first lady Michelle Obama rolled out her national initiative to combat childhood obesity with a show of force that included medical, business and government leaders, grassroots activists, celebrity public service announcements, cartoon characters as nutrition experts, as well as those most directly affected -- the kids themselves.

Dubbed "Let's Move," the project also received a presidential nod of support, to be backed up with as much as $1 billion a year in federal funds for 10 years. Earlier in the day, in the Oval Office, President Obama signed a formal memorandum establishing for the first time a national task force on childhood obesity -- one that draws from the departments of the Interior, Health and Human Services, Agriculture and Education and is charged with turning the first lady's ambitious list of proposals into action.

At its core, the initiative has four pillars: more nutrition information, increased physical activity, easier access to healthy foods and, ultimately, personal responsibility. It has bipartisan support, as demonstrated by the presence of two mayors, one a Republican from Hernando, Miss. (population 10,000) and the other a Democrat from Somerville, Mass. (population 77,478). Hernando's Chip Johnson described how he established a soccer league in his town by leasing a parcel of land from a local resident for $1 a year. And Somerville's Joseph Curtatone noted that his job as mayor is not to legislate diets but to create an "atmosphere and opportunity for good health."

Obama's national campaign purposefully and adamantly steers clear of defining itself as in favor of foodie proselytizing and against French fries, burgers and cookies. This is neither the canonization of slow cooking nor a war on fast food.

"This isn't about trying to turn the clock back to when we were kids or preparing five-course meals from scratch every night. No one has time for that," the first lady said in her remarks. "And it's not about being 100 percent perfect, 100 percent of the time. Lord knows I'm not. There's a place for cookies and ice cream, burgers and fries -- that's part of the fun of childhood."

Obama also quickly swatted away criticism that her campaign is one driven by vanity, social pressures or misperceptions about weight, beauty and fitness. "This isn't about inches and pounds or how our kids look," she said. "It's about how our kids feel and how they feel about themselves."

'Not about politics'

It took more than an hour for the many bells and whistles in Obama's initiative to be even cursorily detailed and for her five guests -- each symbolic -- to be duly recognized and allowed a few words. In some ways, the unveiling was a race against the clock, with more than a few references made to the looming blizzard and the possibility of folks getting stranded on clogged city streets. The State Dining Room, with its portrait of Lincoln, as a backdrop was grander and more official than the we're-all-in-this-together nature of the event. But then, the venue had been changed from THEARC -- the arts and recreation center in Southeast -- because of the weather.

Substituting for the warmth and informality of that Ward 8 setting were about a dozen students in "Let's Move" T-shirts who sat with the first lady. Among them were members of the 2009 championship pee-wee football team, the Watkins Hornets. They served as a tableau vivant of silent motivation. "This isn't about politics," the first lady said. "I don't want our kids to live diminished lives because we failed to step up today. I don't want them looking back decades from now and asking us, 'Why didn't you help us when you had a chance? Why didn't you put us first when it mattered most?' "

Obama's initiative challenges the Food and Drug Administration to work with food and beverage producers, who have announced their support of Obama's proposals, to improve package labeling. Ingredients would be more prominent and easier to understand, and deciphering calorie counts per serving would not require higher math.

Schoolhouse nutrition would be addressed by pushing for the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, and the administration is requesting $10 billion over 10 years to improve school meals. As part of the initiative, companies such as Sodexo, Chartwells School Dining Services and Aramark, which supply food to schools, have agreed to cut salt and fat content, and offer more whole grains and more fresh fruits.

Wake-up call

The 2011 budget includes something called the Healthy Food Financing Initiative. It would invest $400 million to help bring grocery stores into areas dubbed "food deserts" -- or, more accurately, healthy-food deserts. It would also offer incentives for convenience stores to carry more nutritious food options. The goal is to eliminate these produce-free wastelands throughout the country within seven years.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has agreed to work with doctors and health-care providers to ensure that body mass index measurements are standard aspects of medical care and that children whose BMI is high are given a "prescription" for lowering it. That change recalls the empathetic anecdote the first lady often tells of receiving a wake-up call from her daughters' pediatrician, who alerted her to what could be the beginning of a troubling pattern of weight gain. It's a story she told again Tuesday: "It wasn't that long ago that I was a working mom, struggling to balance meetings and deadlines with soccer and ballet. And there were some nights when everyone was tired and hungry, and we just went to the drive-thru because it was quick and cheap, or went with one of the less-healthy microwave options, because it was easy," she said. "And one day, my pediatrician pulled me aside and told me, 'You might want to think about doing things a little bit differently.' "

And the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports will be revamped so that it no longer focuses on how many sit-ups and push-ups a child can do -- or how long they can hang, batlike, from a high bar. Instead of focusing on athleticism or stupid human tricks, it will address health and well-being.

The vast list of proposals also includes a new foundation: Partnership for a Healthier America. Its members include some of the largest organizations engaged in health care and, specifically, obesity issues, such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Kaiser Permanente and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

There will also be sports clinics, community projects such as bike paths and playgrounds, a new Web site and public service announcements. Singer Nelly Furtado was pictured in a video extolling the virtues of healthy eating -- using motherhood as her credentials. And Mo'Nique, the actress, comedienne and talk-show host, was featured in another PSA proclaiming both her own and BET's support of the first lady's efforts. Mo'Nique spent years using her weight as part of her comedy shtick. She hyped her own plus-size figure and often described skinny women as "evil." The first lady has apparently inspired a detente of sorts.

National conversation

There had been weeks of drum rolls and teases, informal remarks, prepared speeches, meetings and briefing books leading to this day. Still, some nutrition advocates don't believe the first lady has gone far enough. The Center for Science in the Public Interest issued a statement arguing that Obama should use her bully pulpit to remove all junk food from schools and to get all advertisements for junk food out of children's programming. Others want her to tackle government farm subsidies that can make chips and soda cheaper than healthier alternatives.

Obama got involved in this national conversation modestly enough in March 2009 when she and a group of fifth-graders from the District's Bancroft Elementary broke ground on an organic garden. The vegetable patch, situated on the sloping South Lawn with the White House rising up in the distance, was the first significant vegetable garden since Eleanor Roosevelt's Victory Garden during World War II.

The garden was something that good-food advocates had lobbied in support of for years. And the first lady's patch of produce, with its lettuces and tubers, received widespread attention -- both here and abroad -- from those interested in sustainable farming, eating locally and supporting a small, agrarian economy. But Obama kept her focus simple. She has used the garden as a way of talking about getting fresh vegetables into kids' diets and making children more cognizant of their own food choices.

One of the students who helped plant the garden, Tammy Nguyen, 11, who is now in the sixth grade, introduced the first lady Tuesday. But she did so only after explaining how the lessons of the garden -- and the importance of a colorful plate -- have stayed with her. "We picked the peas right of the vine and put almost as many in our mouth as in the bowl," she said. "My friends and I pledge to keep that color on the plate -- and I don't mean M&Ms."

Since then, the conversation about healthy food has gone more mainstream and gotten more complex and more diverse. The first lady has linked it to health-care reform, noting that obesity-related diseases put a $147 billion drain on our economy. Obesity affects national security, disqualifying individuals from serving in the military.

And as Will Allen, perhaps this country's most famous urban farmer and a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant," noted in his remarks, "It's a social justice issue. Every child in this country, every person in this country, should have access to good food."

The first lady has decided to take up that fight and to make it her signature issue while in the White House. One in three children in this country is either overweight or obese, Obama said Tuesday. If that trend continues, this generation of children will not live as long as their parents. Obama has said she would like her fight against obesity to be her legacy as first lady. But it will be impossible to measure success -- at least by her standards -- until long after she's left the White House. Because her goal, she said, is to see that "children who are born today will reach adulthood at a healthy weight."

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