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Michelle Obama on obesity: Time for a wake-up call

Michelle Obama introduces Let's Move, an initiative to fight childhood obesity at the White House. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

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.

Highlights include:

  • 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

By 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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They could make a great start by getting sugar out of school meals. Unlike fat, which is regulated to the hilt, there's no limit on sugar in the school meal programs. That includes all the flavored milk, breakfast and lunch, which Tom Vilsack loves so much because of the dairy industry. I don't detect any mention of this. Lots of talk, as usual, no backbone.

Posted by: euclidarms | February 9, 2010 8:05 PM | Report abuse

I work in the beverage industry. We constantly work to make healthier choices for children and adults alike. It's difficult to change consumer habits and demands. Mrs. Obama is making an effort and several leading brands responded just today to go beyond the FDA guidelines in displaying sugar content and calories on the front of their labels.

Thank you to Ms. Black for reporting on this important initiative; however, the comment (It appears she's counting on a second term.) is not part of this news. It was tacky and unprofessional of Ms. Black to insert her opinion of any kind in a news story.

Posted by: Wilsonnyc | February 10, 2010 11:37 AM | Report abuse

Ever see the Surgeon General, Dr. Regina Benjamin?

These kids are getting free breakfast and lunches at school when their families get welfare and food stamps. How about REQUIRING Nutritional Education and monitoring people who are receiving entitlements. This should be made mandatory.

Mrs. B-HO has said her own kids were fat. Is she intending to usher in eating disorders for kids? Anorexia and Bulimia?

Posted by: RoseKelly | February 10, 2010 11:37 AM | Report abuse

I think the problem is more the culture and less the schools. Yeah, the school lunch needs a lot of work, but as an adult, I find the availablilty and often better taste of junk food to be hard to resist. I cook a lot from scratch, but it is so much easier to drive-through. So hard to eat fresh fruit when there are chips and cookies marketed at every turn. We can change the school lunch but at best that's 1/3 of the meals they eat and they will graduate to the same fast-food culture we live in now.

Posted by: GirlScoutMom | February 10, 2010 11:59 AM | Report abuse

We shouldn't need the First Lady to tell us that obesity is a problem. We need to take charge of our health. This is a problem where there is a solution and we can win this fight. Luckily, there are several online fitness tools, like, that can help you get in shape, stay in shape, and lead a healthy lifestyle. has hundreds of exercises posted with step-by-step instruction, video demonstration of workouts, and blogs posted by fitness professionals.

Posted by: gstallkamp | February 10, 2010 4:39 PM | Report abuse

I think Michelle Obama is on the right track, but until we change the entire infrastructure of our society, this issue is simply not going away. The very way we live and get around causes obesity. Go anywhere in Europe and to almost any other modern country and you will find that many citizens rely on walking and cycling for transportation. We have a horrible pedestrian/cyclist infrastructure in this country. The DC area is a good example - it's nearly impossible to bike around the suburbs, even though distances from many places in Montgomery County to DC are totally bikeable if you combine biking with public transit. It's a HUGE problem. It's far easier to get in your car and drive to a huge parking lot somewhere, and then sit on a train for an hour. If you added some biking or walking in that commute, the health and environmental benefits would be astounding.

Posted by: Stats | February 10, 2010 8:40 PM | Report abuse

Another country heard from 'cause evidently Michelle hasn't been to a public school cafeteria in this one!

I have three kids of healthy weight in WV. I regularly visit their schools during lunch time. There is ALWAYS a serving of vegetables and fruit on their trays. Flavored milks are offered at lunch, which I think is great because it's enticing those children who don't like plain to drink SOME milk rather than none. The obese children in my kids' schools, from my own personal observations are the ones who bring in packed lunches consisting of PBJ on white bread, chips, Little Debbies (sometimes several) and candy. You see these kids parents bring this stuff into their kids, and you think, "Oh, no wonder!" because by and large they are as wide as they are tall. I've fought the battle of the bulge all my life and make sure my kids have healthy choices and not junk at home because that's MY JOB. The gov't tried to legislate what the free citizens of the US put into our mouths during Prohibition, and I think we all know how well that worked! I don't want the Obamas or anyone else telling me what to feed my kids. I'm all for requiring some Nutritional Counseling for kids whose families obviously need it, but stay out of my family's kitchen, because my kids are just fine and so are their school lunches!

Posted by: las499335 | February 16, 2010 6:24 PM | Report abuse

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