Michelle Obama delves into the details on kids' obesity at task force meeting

WONKISH? Michelle Obama set the tone for a gathering of experts and administration officials who reeled off statistics on childhood obesity.
WONKISH? Michelle Obama set the tone for a gathering of experts and administration officials who reeled off statistics on childhood obesity. (Evan Vucci/associated Press)
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 10, 2010

The fresh-faced elementary-school children were nowhere to be seen. There were no bright spring vegetables being harvested, no celebrated athletes or actors for added sizzle. First lady Michelle Obama's campaign against childhood obesity got down, dirty and wonkish Friday afternoon with a gathering of administration officials reeling off statistics and academics quoting from research papers.

Obama's opening remarks, low-key and without exclamation points, set the tone for the afternoon. She sounded more like an executive preparing to dive into the minutiae of an immense project than a first lady speaking in sweeping statements that are designed to inspire.

"We've started an important national conversation. But we need your help to propel that conversation into a national response," she said. "The information that we collect here today will be essential to construct the final report that's going to come from the task force -- a report that will serve as a very important road map, with goals, benchmarks, measurable outcomes that will help us collectively tackle this challenge."

Obama gathered about 100 suits, profs, politicos and activists in the South Court Auditorium in the Old Executive Office Building where the air was artificially chilled, the lights were flickering and four American flags adorned the stage. Peter Orszag -- Office of Management and Budget -- was in the house detailing the financial costs of obesity-related health care: about $150 billion a year. Arne Duncan -- Department of Education -- was on stage talking about the importance of eradicating "recreation deserts," those neighborhoods where kids simply have no place to play. And Ken Salazar -- Department of the Interior -- was making a pitch for building more parks in the vicinity of schools.

Back in February, when the first lady launched "Let's Move," her childhood obesity initiative, the president signed a memorandum creating a task force charged with developing workable ideas to help end childhood obesity within a generation. This summit brought together members of the task force, as well as folks who have, for years, been in the trenches doing research and trying to come up with ways to change the unhealthy eating habits of a nation.

The opening session did not get fizzy, but during the question-and-answer portion, with hands flying up left and right, many of the task force members in attendance proved themselves to be eager and well-read students on obesity. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan highlighted the connection between hunger and obesity, a paradox stemming from the lack of access to healthy food. Duncan reminded everyone about his department's $1 billion budget. Then he talked about the importance of taking a holistic approach to education: "If we want students to be much more successful academically, they have to be active."

"I'm a big fan of recess," he said.

Surgeon General Regina Benjamin noted that large corporations should provide female employees with a clean and private place to breast-feed because, she said, research has shown that children who are breast-fed for the first six months of their lives are less likely to become obese.

And Orszag proclaimed himself a star pupil, noting that he hadn't met all the researchers sitting in the front row but he'd read all their work. Then he showed off his knowledge of behavioral economics while discussing how proximity to running trails, bike lanes and gyms makes people more likely to exercise; even four blocks can make a difference. He went on to note that the relationship between obesity and chronic disease is more profound than the connection between smoking and illness. Obese employees are less productive at work, he said.

And then for extra credit: Obesity causes premature aging, he posited. "Forty may be the new 30; but if you're obese, 40 is the new 60."

After about an hour, the audience divided into smaller groups to brainstorm. Melody Barnes, the director of the Domestic Policy Council and chair of the task force, gave them their assignment. "Come up with three to five of the best ideas, the important actions, the task force should recommend to the president," she said. Don't come back with 10 to 15, she warned. Focus. Edit. "Think critically."

Class dismissed.

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