Five years after she launched Let’s Move, Michelle Obama’s willingness “to make a complete fool of myself” is the most visible part of her campaign to end childhood obesity. She’ll dance with a turnip, or Big Bird, or Jimmy Fallon.
Behind the scenes, however, she has cultivated partnerships with big business to cut salt, sugar and fat from food. This network of corporate relationships is unlike that of any previous first lady and has helped her sidestep a Republican Congress resistant to the administration’s public health policies.
The corporate allies she has sought may in some cases share her views, or, at least, see gains for themselves in their public association with her healthful-eating mission.
Her tactics are controversial — to what extent should a first lady lend her status and imprimatur to commercial enterprises? — but also strategic. She and her aides hope they will yield lasting results.
Congress has some sway over how Americans eat. But the nation’s food purveyors, including Wal-Mart, the biggest of them all with $206 billion last year in food sales — and one of Obama’s key partners — almost certainly have more influence and will respond more nimbly to consumer demand.
Like the president, Michelle Obama has less than two years to secure the gains she has made and her legacy as a first lady who accomplished work more substantive than driving fashion choices and YouTube traffic. Obesity rates for children between the ages of 2 and 5 decreased between 2003 and 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and some states recently have reported making progress against obesity in disadvantaged children.
What hasn’t budged in 20 years is this: 1 in 3 American children are overweight or obese, a public health crisis projected to deprive a generation of potential and to generate trillions of dollars in health-care costs.
To combat that, Obama has championed sweeping changes, some encoded in law and some imposed through federal regulatory powers, with a focus on both personal responsibility and helping the poor. Chain restaurants, movie theaters and take-out pizzerias are required to list calories on menus by the end of the year; many have started doing so. The Food and Drug Administration is finalizing the broadest update to grocery nutrition labeling in 20 years.
The change that has provoked the most backlash is also the one mandated by a 2010 federal law that passed with broad bipartisan support. The school lunch program, which provides free and reduced-price meals to more than 21 million low-income children, now requires districts to serve more fruit, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and low-fat dairy products.
Conservative commentators, some lawmakers and some school lunch professionals have derided the new guidelines as imposing one diet on all children and increasing food waste. Students have been posting pictures of the lunches they don’t like on social media, using the hashtag #ThanksMichelleObama. Congress has edged back some of the changes to school lunches and to the federal program that provides supplemental nutrition to low-income women and their children under age 5. A future Congress or White House could easily unravel the rest.
Obama knew from the beginning that she would encounter a political buzz saw in taking up the issue of childhood obesity, White House aides said, and insisted her staff work on fixes that would stay fixed after she was no longer first lady.
By keeping her critiques of the health crisis focused on helping children and engaging the food industry and public health advocates, Obama quickly found that the middle ground is narrow on an issue as fundamental to American life as eating.
“This is as controversial as you can get. We were not surprised at all by the pushback,” said Sam Kass, a close friend of the Obamas who worked as their personal chef while they lived in Chicago and became the administration’s top aide on nutrition policy and executive director of Let’s Move. He said his boss was determined to work with the food industry — despite the risks and complications — because they have “a huge role to play.”
“Obviously, they are feeding everybody,” Kass said during an interview before he resigned five months ago. “This is a complicated set of issues, and there’s no one reason we got here, and there’s not going to be one strategy to get us out.”
With the blessing of Obama, who declined to be interviewed for this article, Kass negotiated with Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, on a plan to cut salt, sugar and fat from its product lines.
The first lady publicly praised for-profit chains of day-care centers that agreed to abide by guidelines for improved nutrition in after-school programs, brokered deals to market vegetables to children and pushed Americans to drink more water as part of an initiative with American Beverage Association members looking to increase bottled water sales as soft-drink profits fall off.
Those efforts — forged outside the White House through the nonprofit Partnership for a Healthier America — have met with modest results, and Obama’s appearances with company heads have raised questions among public health experts who have wondered whether she has given cover to an industry that is lagging behind and dragging its feet.
When the first lady appears at Let’s Move events with soda spokesmen such as LeBron James and Beyoncé, some public health advocates suggested, she makes an implicit endorsement of products that are responsible for the obesity epidemic.
“Beyoncé has just put Let’s Move! in a painfully awkward conflict of interest,” Marion Nestle, a New York University nutrition and public health professor, wrote on her blog, Food Politics, after one event.
Margo Wootan, the director of nutrition policy at the liberal Center for Science in the Public Interest, a leading health advocacy organization, said it was politically untenable to expect the first lady to publicly denounce a major food company — and she said she appreciated Obama’s efforts to work privately with those companies about making improvements to the food they process.
“She has a celebrity and a status. That’s a carrot for companies to do better. . . . I have plenty of sticks,” said Wootan, whose organization repeatedly has threatened to sue food companies over their marketing practices. “I don’t have many carrots. Her carrot and my stick work together really well.”
In an interview, Nestle said that removing junk food from school vending machines and getting new nutrition information on menus and labels “are huge accomplishments by any standard and should remove any ambiguity about whether Let’s Move has been effective. It has.”
The partnerships fit into Obama’s broader philosophy on food politics, which makes room for junk food and the companies that deal in it. “A Twinkie is not a cigarette,” she told an interviewer as she launched Let’s Move in 2010. “What parents need is just information about what’s in the Twinkie and how much of this can we eat. It’s not that we can’t have a Twinkie.”
Pamela Bailey, president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said Obama has been someone the industry could work with, in part because she occupies a middle lane. “She’s not trying to be the food police. She brings people together,” Bailey said. “Her role and her interest in this topic accelerated our work.”
Her first partnership with the industry was to tout a 2010 pledge by food and beverage manufacturers to cut 1.5 trillion calories out of the food sold in the United States by the end of 2015, via lower-calorie products, altered recipes and reduced portion sizes. Michelle Obama stood beside the head of Kellogg’s, maker of Frosted Flakes and Froot Loops cereals, and claimed a victory against childhood obesity with “a major agreement on the part of the private sector corporations to improve the nutrition of the food that we put on the table or that we grab on the run.”
By joining with the Partnership for a Healthier America, an independent nonprofit group that works with Michelle Obama, the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation — a big-food alliance — could score political points for just doing what it had already planned: reformulate products and create smaller packages for consumers who were demanding such foods.
By last year, the companies announced they had beaten their goal and removed 6.4 trillion calories from their sales, four times as many as promised and ahead of schedule.
During the same time period, consumer demand for organic food pushed sales up 10 percent over the previous year, to $36 billion, according to the Organic Trade Association.
“The industry, if you’d like to be a skeptic, could have just projected the way the market was going and then promised that as the outcome and wanted to score good-guy points from it,” said Kelly Brownell, an obesity expert who serves as dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University and has consulted with the White House. “If you’re less skeptical, you say the industry is making a real effort to improve their foods.”
Jeff Stier, a senior fellow at the conservative National Center for Public Policy Research, initially thought the first lady had staked out a middle position on food policy, but now says the campaign has become “rudderless” and is veering toward the nanny state.
“Maybe the American people aren’t behind a strong government campaign telling us what to eat,” Stier said.
Michelle Obama has seen her job as supporting her husband’s administration — which means trying to have some influence while avoiding political risk. Her immense value to the White House is as the charming face of her family’s brand, a term her aides have uttered over the years, and healthy eating and fitness are the issues Obama has come to embody.
She works out at least five days a week, slipping out of the White House to Solidcore and SoulCycle classes. She has put her family on a weekends-only dessert diet and showily munches on carrots while hosting groups of kids for lunch. When she created a video dancing with a turnip to the beat of the hit song “Turn Down for What,” it was unexpected but seemed wholly authentic for her.
The clip has been viewed more than 44 million times on Vine since it was posted in early October. Obama has said, “I’m pretty much willing to make a complete fool out of myself to get our kids moving.”
She has twice done “mom dancing” skits on Jimmy Fallon’s late-night talk show, where she shook her tush alongside the host, who dressed in drag for the acts. She has hopped through the White House during a potato-sack race and invited the show “Biggest Loser” to the executive mansion for a group workout. She sat beside two Muppets — Rosita and Elmo — at a news conference and talked to them about “Sesame Street’s” deal to allow produce companies to use its characters to market fruits and vegetables to kids.
The long view of history has a way of revaluing the causes of the women who served with their presidential husbands. The Highway Beautification Act that Lady Bird Johnson helped enact now is seen as embodying the foundational principles of conservation of public space. Betty Ford is credited with ending the taboo on discussion of breast cancer. Laura Bush founded book festivals in Texas and in the District that continue to draw tens of thousands of visitors each year.
There are no reliable data analytics to assess the power of the bully pulpit in real time, no way to count the number of preschoolers convinced by Obama on TV to eat their spinach or parents who see her on the cover of Cooking Light and start cooking better meals.
Scientific certainty on declining obesity rates and calories cut from the food supply also is difficult to establish.
In Obama’s case, her close relationship with the American food-selling titan Wal-Mart may lead to the biggest changes propelled by Let’s Move: healthier packaged food sold to consumers.
Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, was among the first companies to reach out to the first lady’s office. Their partnership evolved slowly over months of conversations between Kass and Leslie Dach, who was then the corporation’s executive vice president of communications.
But the groundwork was laid for the relationship in the years before Obama took on childhood obesity. Her position on the board of TreeHouse Foods, a key supplier of Wal-Mart’s private-
label products, gave her an intimate familiarity with the business and made her a Democratic party figure that a company like Wal-Mart, whose family owners are big Republican donors, could work with. She stepped down from the TreeHouse board in 2007.
As she was finding her footing as first lady in 2009 and developing her plan for Let’s Move, Wal-Mart spent much of the same year surveying its customers about healthful eating and holding focus groups with customers they referred to as “Wal-Mart moms.” The women told the company that shopping for healthful food was a frustrating and expensive exercise, recalled Jack Sinclair, the former vice president for the grocery division of Wal-Mart U.S. In spring of that year, the company gathered about a dozen health advocates and nutritionists in New York to discuss what it could do to make the food it sold healthier.
Dach had been a Democratic campaign strategist before taking the job atop Wal-Mart’s communications shop and saw Obama as someone Wal-Mart should court.
Wal-Mart came to the White House with a set of goals, including opening stores in rural areas and city neighborhoods where there were no large grocers and adding a “great for you” label that would make it easy for customers to spot which of the company’s store-branded products were most nutritious. The label was placed on fresh and frozen vegetables; unflavored, low-fat or nonfat milk; and yogurt and foods with 100 percent whole grains. Nutritionists gave it pretty good reviews in terms of rigor but panned the inclusion of 100 percent fruit juice.
But the idea that most excited Michelle Obama’s office was a pledge by the company to reduce the amount of sugar, salt and fat in the food it sold. Dach and Kass went back and forth for months on the salt and sugar goals, while also discussing how the company could push its suppliers to lower the prices of whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
They finally settled on a goal of eliminating trans fats, reducing sugar across the store by 10 percent and reducing salt by 25 percent, compared with items stocked in 2008. The new goals applied to 67 food categories in the store, including yogurt, cereals, boxed meals, tortillas, ketchup and spaghetti sauce.
Such changes have the potential to reverberate throughout the grocery industry because of the company’s massive scale.
Wal-Mart’s decision to give its nearly 500,000 workers a raise started a minimum-wage race with other retail chains. Its opposition to Indiana’s religious freedom law, voiced directly by its chief executive to the state’s governor, helped force revisions to the act.
When Wal-Mart required its suppliers to create tortillas with less salt, suppliers adjusted their recipes. Michelle Obama’s team saw the potential ripple effect: If suppliers were making tortillas with less salt for Wal-Mart, they wouldn’t make a separate, saltier batch for other grocers. The same thing happened when the company demanded less water in liquid detergent. Wal-Mart’s packages got smaller — and so did everyone else’s.
“Taking sugar out of yogurt has been pretty easy for us,” Sinclair said. “I think [manufacturers] just put more in than they realized they had added in the first place.”
Reaching the salt goal has been a slower road. The bread it sells now has 16 percent less salt, the company has reported. Tortillas have 9 percent less sodium. But low-sodium varieties of some products, such as soup, have been failures at the cash register and scrapped. Fewer than 6 percent of the products it sells contain trans fats.
To celebrate the shift, the first lady held another event with Wal-Mart, touring a Springfield, Mo., store with a few women who shop at the retailer.
In the next two years, Michelle Obama will have to remain involved in food policy to preserve the gains. As the celebrations for the fifth anniversary of Let’s Move continue, the administration is girding for challenges to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the law behind the first lady’s anti-obesity campaign. The White House expects Congress, the food industry and the School Nutrition Association to take another swing at school lunch standards, which opponents say are expensive, drive kids away from the meal program and lead to more food waste.
Obama has put in place measures to ensure her work is sustained. Profits from her 2012 gardening book, “American Grown,” went to the nonprofit National Park Foundation, which is using the funds to offset the costs of the White House garden and finance programs promoting gardening and healthful eating. The Partnership for a Healthier America will continue to operate when President Obama is no longer in office. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation recently committed an additional $500 million to the effort to end childhood obesity.
In recent months, the first lady has vowed to keep at it.
“We all know that for everyone in this country who has stepped up to champion this issue, there are plenty of other folks just waiting for us to get bored,” she said at a Let’s Move event in February. “They’re just waiting for us to declare victory and turn our attention to other matters.”
It was both an acknowledgment that her legacy is not yet secure and a warning that she will not go away until it is.
Alice Crites contributed to this story.