Obama's report is in; now the questions begin
Today, Michelle Obama unveiled the White House task force report on solving childhood obesity. The 120-page document defines its goal as returning the country's rate of childhood obesity to 5 percent by 2030, the same as it was in the late 1970s.
To that end, the report outlines 70 recommendations that include the reasonably simple, such as educating women about the health benefits of breastfeeding, and the sure-to-be controversial, such as boosting the quantity of fruits and vegetables grown in the United States.
I've been impressed with the White House's multi-pronged approach to the knotty problem of childhood obesity. Since Obama planted the first seeds in the White House kitchen garden, she has struck the right tone. She has patiently explained to the public why there is no silver-bullet solution, gently but firmly scolded the food industry for its relentless marketing of unhealthful food to children, all while giving hope that a solution is still within reach.
"We don’t need new discoveries or new inventions to reverse this trend," Obama told reporters at the news conference, held at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. "We have the tools at our disposal to reverse it. All we need is the motivation, the opportunity and the willpower to do what needs to be done."
But, I wonder, does the White House have that kind of willpower?
The new report has some serious policy implications. Yet the administration so far has shied away from getting its hands dirty in political and legislative fights in this particular arena.
Take the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act, which allocates funds for school lunch, which is this year's hot-button food-reform issue. The bill allocates an extra $4.5 billion for childhood nutrition programs. That's less than half of the $10 billion in President Obama's budget for child nutrition. But it is the first time since 1973 that Congress has increased the federal reimbursement rate for public school meals.
The bill has been passed by the Senate Agriculture Committee. It's bipartisan and, most important, the money is there. And yet it is languishing thanks to a crowded congressional schedule. Sources on Capitol Hill say the White House hasn't pushed to get the bill floor time. And although administration officials keep saying they are hoping for the full $10 billion, their effort to find the rest of that money is not so apparent.
If the White House isn't willing to push hard here, you have to wonder whether or how it is going to take on really tough questions such as subsidies for fruit and vegetable growers. According to the report, U.S. producers would have to double the number of acres dedicated to growing fruit and increase vegetable acreage by nearly one and a half times in order to establish a sufficient supply of fruits and vegetables for all Americans to meet the federal dietary guidelines. Meeting that goal by 2020 is one of the report's benchmarks of success.
Yet the report is vague about to how to achieve that. Fruit and vegetable subsidies have no strong support from Democrats or Republicans on the congressional agriculture committees, who mostly represent heartland states that grow subsidized corn, soybeans and cotton. And on April 21, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told the House Agriculture Committee that the administration would basically stay out of Congress's way while it writes the 2012 farm bill. History shows that even when a White House does get involved, the agriculture committees often ignore its requests. Without an aggressive shove, this benchmark will not be met.
The task force report is an impressive and thoughtful document that can serve as a road map for solving America's most pressing public-health dilemma. Now we just have to wait and see whether the White House takes the wheel and hits the accelerator.
-- Jane Black
May 11, 2010; 3:45 PM ET
Categories: Food Politics | Tags: Childhood obesity, Jane Black, Michelle Obama
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