Michelle Obama on obesity: Time for a wake-up call
After weeks of buzz and buildup, Michelle Obama introduced "Let's Move," her initiative to fight childhood obesity.
Surrounded in the White House State Dining Room by a sports star, doctor, urban farmer and, of course, the ever-present students from Bancroft Elementary, Obama outlined her plan, which includes establishing a high-powered task force, improving school lunch and, most notably, allocating $400 million per year to eliminate "food deserts," areas without grocery stores or access to fresh and healthful food.
"This isn't like a disease where we're still waiting for the cure to be discovered – we know the cure for this," Obama said of childhood obesity. "We have everything we need, right now, to help our kids lead healthy lives. Rarely in the history of this country have we encountered a problem of such magnitude and consequence that is so eminently solvable."
After all the buildup, many White House watchers may not see much new in the announcement. In speeches at the garden on the White House lawn and, most recently, at the US Conference of Mayors, Obama has outlined the importance of improving food in schools, encouraging physical activity and making it easier and more affordable for parents and children to eat well.
But Obama did serve up details on several specific initiatives. And, reading between the lines, she seemed to make clear what the White House's legislative priorities are for the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act that Congress will take up this year.
- A commitment to eliminate food deserts in America within seven years. (It appears she's counting on a second term.) The Healthy Food Financing Initiative will invest $400 million a year to bring grocery stores to underserved areas and encourage convenience stores to carry more healthful food options. The money, the White House confirmed, will come from a partnership between the Departments of Agriculture, Health and Human Services and Treasury. Obama also unveiled the USDA Food Environment Atlas, which maps out food deserts and rates of diabetes and obesity around the country.
- A high-powered childhood obesity task force to review over the next 90 days "every program and policy relating to child nutrition and physical activity." Members include the secretaries of the Interior, Agriculture, Health and Human Services and Education, the director of the Office of Management and Budget and key White House policy staffers.
- A commitment by several food service vendors to voluntarily meet standards for school food. The guidelines, set by the Institute of Medicine, include slashing the amount of sugar, fat and salt in school meals within five years and doubling the amount of produce they serve within 10 years. The suppliers, the White House has confirmed, are Aramark, Sodexho and Chartwells School Dining Services. Chartwells, which serves DC Public Schools, has been hammered recently on local blogs for the processed and unhealthful food it serves students.
- A promise to cut administrative costs in the school lunch program and increase the number of students served by 1 million over five years in this year's child nutrition reauthorization. Using the extra $1 billion a year that President Obama has put in his budget for childhood nutrition, the USDA will "knock down barriers that keep families from participating in school meal programs." Translation: The money would be used to help fund "direct certification," which automatically enrolls students whose household income is below 185 percent of the poverty line for free or reduced-price school meals.
- An independent foundation to coordinate businesses, non-profits and state and local governments and to measure progress. The new Partnership for a Healthier America will bring together health experts such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, The Kellogg Foundation, the Brookings Institution and hospital group Kaiser Permanente to share their experiences with private companies and public institutions that want to begin their own healthful eating or physical activity programs.
Like previous first ladies' initiatives, fighting childhood obesity is not controversial. Today, a diverse group of companies and lobbyists including Wal-Mart, Disney, the School Nutrition Association and the PGA Tour came out to support the initiative.
"It's important because it will shine a light on the things that are working. I also think it will legitimize a lot of what organizations and communities have been doing for a long time," said Ray Baxter, senior vice president at Kaiser Permanente. "People would say, 'It's nice you're doing that.' People have not got how important it is to change food in the schools and to enable physical activity."
It was a thought that Obama echoed in her remarks. "It's time we all had a wake-up call. Our kids didn't do this to themselves. Our kids don't decide what's served to them at school or whether there's time for gym class or recess. Our kids don't choose to make food products with tons of sugar and sodium in super-sized portions, and then have those products marketed to them everywhere they turn. And no matter how much they beg for pizza, fries and candy, ultimately, they are not, and should not, be the ones calling the shots at dinnertime. We're in charge. We make these decisions."
-- Jane Black
February 9, 2010; 3:30 PM ET
Categories: Food Politics | Tags: Childhood obesity, Jane Black, Michelle Obama, nutrition, school lunch
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