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Michelle Obama: Small things make a difference

Michelle Obama speaks to food service directors at the annual meeting of the School Nutrition Association. (Jason Reed / Reuters)

Michelle Obama is used to adoring crowds. Her approval rating is 78 percent, according to a CBS news poll. And it's hard for anyone, even Republicans, to argue that it's a bad idea to fight childhood obesity.

But at the annual meeting of the School Nutrition Association here, Obama was embraced with unique fervor. In her 25-minute speech, the audience of hundreds of food service directors applauded as often and as earnestly as if the first lady were delivering the State of the Union address: 15 times in all. And they gave her standing ovations at the beginning and end of her speech.

Obama's initiative, Let's Move, incorporates positions for which the 55,000-member association has lobbied: More money for school lunch and kitchen equipment, streamlined paperwork to enroll students in school feeding programs and strict nutrition standards for foods sold outside the lunch line. The first lady's program also encourages increased physical activity for children.

"I think that if you asked the average person to do what you have to do every day, and that is to prepare a meal for hundreds of hungry kids with just $2.68 a child -– with only $1 to $1.25 of that money going to the food itself –- they would look at you like you were crazy," Obama said to an outburst of applause. "That's sad. But that's less than what many folks spend on a cup of coffee in the morning."

Obama hit the highlights of speeches she has made several times since she announced the Let's Move initiative on Feb. 2: One-third of children are overweight and obese. Obesity-related illnesses cost billions of dollars to treat annually. But she also highlighted progressive programs already underway at schools across the country.

In Gooding, Idaho, for example, the district contracted with local farmers to grow fresh fruits and vegetables specifically for her school district. Its cooks replaced some oil in chocolate cake with pureed beans, a recipe "so tasty that none of the students even noticed." In Jackson, Miss., elementary school teachers are now required to eat with their students at lunch, a decision that has increased the consumption of fruits and vegetables. (More applause.)

Obama also exhorted members to make small changes, for example, switching from 2 percent to 1 percent milk, which can save 20 calories per serving, or using fruit in light, not heavy, syrup that saves 13 calories. "Little changes that cut 20 calories here, 30 calories there –- all of that can add up to the hundreds of calories a week for kids," she said. "And over the course of a year, for some kids, that can mean the difference between being at a healthy weight or not.

"It's often the small things that make the difference here."

-- Jane Black

By Jane Black  |  March 1, 2010; 4:36 PM ET
Categories:  Food Politics  | Tags: Jane Black, Michelle Obama, school lunch  
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