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Q&A: Tom Harkin on Michelle Obama and nutrition

Sen. Tom Harkin (second from left) after meeting with Michelle Obama at the White House. (J. Scott Applewhite / AP Photo)

On Feb. 2, Michelle Obama met privately at the White House with cabinet secretaries and members of Congress to discuss her new childhood obesity initiative, which rolls out next week. Among the guests was Sen. Tom Harkin (D – Iowa), a long-time proponent of healthful eating.

As former chairman of the Senate Agriculture and Forestry Committee, Harkin successfully pushed for a fresh fruit and vegetable program in the 2008 Farm Bill, which delivers $1 billion over 10 years for fresh produce in schools. He also has long advocated for strict nutrition standards for all foods sold in schools, not just those available in the lunch line. Now, as chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Harkin is supporting the PLAY Every Day Act, which would help to promote physical activity for children and families.

I spoke to Harkin about what impact Obama's interest in childhood obesity could have and his priorities for 2010. Edited excerpts follow.

-- Jane Black

Q: Tell me about your meeting with Michelle Obama.
A: Well, she called a meeting and she basically said there were four areas in which we need to focus: schools, physical activity, affordability and accessibility and empowering consumers to make better choices. She went on to say this is not a top down program; it's not partisan. We want it to be community oriented.

She was just wonderful in leading the discussion. I can tell this is something that she cares very deeply about. I think she is going to be a great spokesperson for this effort. She has already started to lead by example.

Q: You've long advocated for health and nutrition reform. Do you think she can kickstart a revolution?
A: I have been involved for so many years. I said to her: "You are the answers to my prayers." And I mean that. She gets it. And it's going to be wonderful to have her in this bully pulpit, so to speak, leading this effort. Let's face it, her approval rating is still in the stratosphere someplace. And people really respect and admire her.

Q: Any details on the new initiatives?
A: It's a broad thing. Yes, there's the [upcoming Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act]. And there's the Elementary and Secondary Education Act [a.k.a. The No Child Left Behind Act] in my committee. There are legislative things we can do to help reduce the incidence of childhood obesity. But there are things that can be done at the community level. We want to engage all sectors. So I think she's going to be reaching out and using as an examples school districts and communities who have done innovative things in this country. I don't know if we need to reinvent the wheel but we need take the best ideas out there and incorporate them on a broader basis.

Q: Will you be meeting again?
A: This was our first meeting. She invited us to come up with more ideas and have a working relationship with the first lady's office on this.

I sensed there today a genuine interest in not just having this as some flash-in-the-pan kind of thing. I sensed among all the people there a real desire to make significant changes and put some emphasis on this. So I think there will be some new things.

Q: You are very concerned about sodium intake in America. Did you bring that up in the meeting?
A: I thought about it, but it's so specific. I'm going to have a personal conversation with the first lady about that. We do have an excess-of-sodium problem in our society. Everything you pick up is loaded with salt. And it doesn't have to be.

I'm looking at the reauthorization to do some pilot programs and investigations into the amount of sodium in school lunches. We've got to start showing that you can make good food in schools for school lunch program that is not high in salt. It just takes a little creativity, using more fresh ingredients, and not so much processed food.

Q: Do you watch your salt intake?
A: I get by daily with less than 1,000 mg of sodium. There are some days if I eat out I might exceed that, but I'm well below 2400 [the recommended daily allowance].

I'm careful about what breakfast cereal I eat. I use skim milk, which has some [naturally occurring] sodium by the way. I eat lots of fresh fruit: bananas, mostly, and blueberries and apples. For lunch, I usually have a bowl of soup and a piece of dark bread, rye bread or something, with less sodium and skim milk. And because so many soups have salt, I make my own. I make it and I put it in Tupperware and freeze them to bring to the office.

My wife has been very supportive. She's found out she doesn't need sodium, either, though she's never had blood pressure problems. Since we've got off of it, we find that food tastes better. I use seasonings and herbs and spices and things like that. But you just don't need salt.

By Jane Black  |  February 4, 2010; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  Food Politics  | Tags: Jane Black, Michelle Obama, nutrition  
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FYI. The F.D.A. and Cartoon Network has an anti-obesity camapign for tweens called It's an informative website with a pretty cool rap song called "Dishin the Nutrition". Download it for free.

Posted by: mindrhyme | February 5, 2010 3:17 AM | Report abuse

Michelle Obama deserves praise for tackling the the number one health problem in America - obesity. As a father of twin teenage daughters, I applaud her for showing concern about her own children.

The earlier a parent addresses a weight problem, the easier it is correct the problem. For the health of the nation - this is the best cause she can undertake to influence other parents to help their children avoid obesity and diabetes.

Posted by: alance | February 5, 2010 8:11 PM | Report abuse

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