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Michelle Obama takes on childhood obesity

By Katrina vanden Heuvel

I don’t like being outdoors, Smithers. For one thing, there are too many fat children.
-- Mr. Burns, “The Simpsons,” 1996

Famously, Henry Ford wanted his cars priced inexpensively enough so that his assembly line laborers could afford to buy one. Sadly, the only racket in which this philosophy seems to have been retained is the American fast food industry. At the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, it takes just under thirty minutes of work for an average burger-flipper to earn enough to buy a Big Mac (average American price, $3.58) on his lunch break.

Startlingly, it would still take that burger-flipper 29 minutes to earn enough to buy a head of organic romaine lettuce ($3.49/head). Add tomato ($4.99/pound), sweet onion ($1.49/pound), and carrots ($2.49/bunch); skim milk ($2.99/half gallon), hardboiled egg ($3.69/dozen), and whole wheat bread ($3.49/loaf), and to purchase his shopping basket, he’d need to clock over three hours of work, not to mention the unpaid labor he’d have to devote to preparing those groceries into a food-pyramid-friendly meal.

This is the situation in American eating that has led to our epidemic of childhood obesity. Over the last three decades, childhood obesity rates in the United States have tripled, as First Lady Michelle Obama rightly noted yesterday in her launch speech for Let’s Move, the White House’s new campaign to combat the epidemic. Today, one-third of all American children are overweight or obese. The rate is even higher among African Americans, and one-half of all minority children born in 2000 or later can expect to develop early-onset diabetes.

As the prices above indicate, this epidemic is not to be blamed on eating habits themselves -- or even on their families. It is simply far less expensive to feed a family from the Dollar Menu at McDonald’s than it is to prepare fresh, healthy choices. And in some locations -- “food deserts,” as the White House calls them -- it is impossible because the fresh food simply isn’t available for purchase. As Mrs. Obama explained in an interview with Jim Lehrer on NewsHour, “We have to start with [the] assumption that parents aren’t deliberately making bad choices; they’re making the choices that they can under the circumstances.”

In addition to the basic proposals of Let’s Move (better labeling, more nutritious school lunches, more exercise, to name three), then, it is also these “circumstances” under which families make their food decisions that need to change. The current system of farm subsidies needs to be rethought, a strike that would level the playing field in the pricing of unhealthy vs. healthy foods. Tax-breaks for purveyors of fast food and junk food also need to be eliminated, as Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) has proposed. In response to the launch of Let’s Move, Kucinich issued a statement saying, “Most Americans don’t know that the government now subsidizes the marketing of junk food and fast food to kids in order to cement their brand and taste allegiances early in life.” In 2006, McDonald’s spent $1 million every day on advertising aimed at American children, legally a tax-deductible business expenditure and, in effect, a subsidy given to the golden arches by the American people.

Complementing the first lady, President Obama today announced the formation of a task force charged with solving the problem of childhood obesity “within a generation.” It is a challenging goal, indeed, but the percentage of American smokers dropped from 42 percent in 1964, when Surgeon General Luther Terry revealed the dangers of cigarette smoking to the American public, to less than 20 percent in 2007. Given appropriate executive action, smart legislation, savvy organization and education and effective private effort (and not necessarily, as Mrs. Obama put it to Lehrer, “major lifestyle overhauls”), Americans have shown a willingness to become healthier; on the issue of childhood obesity, we can do it again.

By Katrina vanden Heuvel  | February 10, 2010; 4:16 PM ET
Categories:  vanden Heuvel  | Tags:  Katrina vanden Heuvel  
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So what is Madame Sasquatch wearing these days, a size 18, or bigger?

"Red Beans And Rice Didn't Miss Her"

Posted by: screwjob11 | February 10, 2010 4:42 PM | Report abuse

Gee. Katrina displays her elitist snob credentials by her food basket choices. You don't have to buy "organic" romaine. You CAN buy a dozen eggs and hardboil them yourself at much less cost than $3.69.

Perhaps Katrina doesn't like to have her widdle hands peel eggs.

Also, there's plenty of things parents can do without America having to spend lots of money with our taxes. Now there would be a column worth reading.

Posted by: bandmom22 | February 10, 2010 4:50 PM | Report abuse

And for starters, the government can do further statistical analysis. For all of the kids who are obese, what percentage come from families that are on welfare or are food stamp recipients?

Posted by: hofbrauhausde | February 10, 2010 4:51 PM | Report abuse

It's a smart thing to try and reduce obesity rates in our children, but you have to look at the parents. They CAN make healthier choices.

Thanks to Michelle Obama for raising peoples' awareness of this issue. We are all paying the health care costs of many of the obese and those with diabetes (obesity is the #1 risk factor).

Let's start by making all the obese teabaggers who are waddling around screaming "socialism!" and other insane things, go exercise, because it looks like the only thing that they are willing to work is their big ignorant yappers.

Posted by: losthorizon10 | February 10, 2010 5:04 PM | Report abuse

> one-half of all minority children born
> in 2000 or later can expect to develop
> early-onset diabetes

Truly appalling. I'm glad Mrs. Obama is directing her attention to this.

Posted by: cbk22 | February 10, 2010 5:08 PM | Report abuse

Like Katrina Vanden Huevel I also am alarmed by the obesity levels in this country. However, her muddy thinking can only steer us wrong as we try to fix our problems. To wit...

1.) Business expenses are not gov't subsidies. Under Katrina's logic all marketing, payroll, rent, and cost of goods sold would have to be considered a gov't subsidy -- just ridiculous. Can't she pick up some minimal business training before commenting so much on corporate matters?

2.) This epidemic IS to be blamed on the eating habits and the families themselves. Do I really need to elaborate? McDonald's puts the food in your mouth? Don't they sell fruit and salads?

Unfortunately, she also goes into detail about how gov't can be the solution here without really explaining that the gov't is heavily responsible for the problem.

We have terrible nutrition education in this country and have had it for DECADES. This is a direct result of our gov't and education system. We have focused on the USRDA for recommended intake of vitamins and minerals. This has turned out to be woefully inadequate. Millions upon millions of people were led to believe that their bowl of fruity pebbles (all those vitamins and minerals!) with milk was choc full of wholesome goodness, when, in reality, it was terrible nutrition and a precursor to lifetime obesity.

Before our gov't can take the lead in helping Americans leave behind being a fatty nation it must come clean with the misinformation and incorrect assumptions it has saddled the American people with over the past few generations.

Posted by: scott3 | February 10, 2010 5:55 PM | Report abuse

Before the feds start lecturing me about my food choices they need to get their own house in order. Here are some actions they can take immediately without borrowing any more money.

1. The so-called "Independence card" can only be used to purchase healthy staples such as whole wheat flour, canola oil, unprocessed fresh, canned and frozen fruits and vegetables and low-fat dairy products. No pastries, sodas, snacks, frozen dinners or pizzas, cookies, lunch meats, ice cream, heavily processed foods or convenience get the idea.

2. Federally subsidized school breakfasts and lunches must include only the healthy food items detailed above. No sodas, snacks or fast foods in schools! The only pizza given away has to be whole wheat, vegetarian with low-fat cheese and no fries!

3. Federal prisons must serve only the healthy food described above.

4. Military dining halls also have to serve only the same healthy stuff.

5. Cafeterias in government buildings.....see the above.

My point is, they have to walk the walk before they talk the talk.

Posted by: hit4cycle | February 10, 2010 6:32 PM | Report abuse

Oh yeah, I forgot to include the federally subsidized WIC progam in my previous post as areas where the feds could impose healthy options immediately.

Also, I forgot to foods with high percentages of white flower or white sugar.

Posted by: hit4cycle | February 10, 2010 6:36 PM | Report abuse

Sure, the individual ingredients are more expensive in bulk...but the author is forgetting that they make more than one sandwich. That's a big difference when you break it down in cost per sandwich.

Posted by: DCinND | February 10, 2010 6:49 PM | Report abuse

Ordinary Americans can solve their obesity problems, for it is possible to eat healthily and inexpensively. Eliminate fast food and sugary drinks, and load up on legumes; meat, fish and nuts in moderation; and vegetables and fruits.

Posted by: junomoneta88 | February 10, 2010 7:56 PM | Report abuse

Palin's plan for the economy:

"Wait, let me look at my handprompter, Oh yeah, a moose in a pot for everybody.

Posted by: MILLER123 | February 10, 2010 8:09 PM | Report abuse


Palin, for $100,000 and a tea party are you smarter than:

A: a five college in six years learning experience?

B: a five year old?

C: a five finger answer?

D. None the above

Posted by: MILLER123 | February 10, 2010 8:12 PM | Report abuse

Oh dear God! It's a travesty! People have to actually WORK to eat? What is the world coming to?

Posted by: pcannady | February 10, 2010 8:19 PM | Report abuse

It's none of her business. She ought to fade well into the background, sit down, and shut up. Her husband talks all the time, saying nothing meaningful or positive, and one such bigmouth in a marriage is enough.

Posted by: tucanofulano | February 10, 2010 9:20 PM | Report abuse

If one is going to discuss the obstacles the working poor face in feeding their families healthy food, why would one cite inflated prices for bizarre fad products that even upper middle class people wouldn't buy?

$3.49 for a head of organic romaine lettuce? What does that even look like? Is that the reddish stuff with crinkly edges?

What's wrong with spinach and carrots and (gasp!) frozen green beans and broccoli?

Posted by: Itzajob | February 10, 2010 10:07 PM | Report abuse

Why do all these poor minority children eat so well? And why is this communist writing in the Washington Post? So she can feel at home?

Posted by: chatard | February 10, 2010 11:31 PM | Report abuse

The self-described First (“Time-I’ve–Been-Proud To Be An American”) Lady, Michelle Obama just launched a campaign to combat childhood obesity called “Let’s Move.” And this evening, obese children started their own program called “Let’s Not.”

Posted by: jahoby | February 11, 2010 12:09 AM | Report abuse

Great move, as usual, first lady Obama.

As usual bitter haters like jahoby, tucanofulano and screwjob11 couldn't recognize smart ideas if their life depended on it. Their continued ignorance is not unexpected. They do a lot of talking for fat, uneducated (when compared to the FLOTUS) and unwilling to accept the fact that Dubyah screwed up and President Obama and company are fixing the damage.

I suggest jahoby, tucanofulano and screwjob11 stop being bitter and ignorant, get a life and try to be somebody -- like Michelle.

Posted by: bcs2k | February 11, 2010 1:03 AM | Report abuse

Yonkers, New York
11 February 2010

Michelle Obama is right to bring sharp focus on child obesity, a problem which has assumed epidemic proportions in America.

The problem of obesity, with diabetes and cardio-vascular diseases its normal consequences--is one of the most serious health problems confronting America.

It is also costing America some $147 billion a year now! And growing exponentially!

Michelle Obama will be doing America a great service if she devotes all of her time and effort to this one daunting problem which is PREVENTABLE and which is now taking such a terrible toll in the lives of millions of Americans.

Mariano Patalinjug

Posted by: MPatalinjug | February 11, 2010 6:38 AM | Report abuse

Typical liberal condescension. "Burger flipper??!?!" You mean people who earn a living in the service industry? I know it's not a tenured professorship at Columbia or a staff job at the NATION, but it's an honest living.

So, now the government is going to tax McDonalds because Obama doesn't like the food they're selling, even though there are plenty of healthy choices on the menu at McDonald's.

Who pays for that? The consumer. But, as always, liberals don't care about consumers - it's all about control.

Here's an idea - if you don't like fast food or think it's unhealthy, don't eat it.

This is just another excuse for the government to control more of your life and dictate your behavior - next they'll add taxes upon taxes onto your steak and pizza because some idiot liberal like Obama thinks they know how to run your life better than you do.

Posted by: TomPaine76 | February 11, 2010 9:10 AM | Report abuse

Allowing a tax deduction for advertising expenses equates to a government subsidy? This idea shows an alarming ignorance. All business expenses are tax deductible. A business is taxed on its profits, and profits are calculated by subtracting expenses from revenue. One is almost left speechless by an argument that seems to understand nothing.

Posted by: Roytex | February 11, 2010 9:42 AM | Report abuse

"Madame Sasquatch"? Are you referring to the First Lady? Why don't you post your pic, dear? I'm sure you're just gorgeous.

And a size 18? Is that what you wear?


Posted by: notation | February 11, 2010 10:00 AM | Report abuse

I raised six kids none obese. They were raised vegetarian and had plenty of protein. They are all very healthy adults. They played alot, were always outside exploring, walking, riding their bikes etc....
When was the last time you saw kids playing on the streets????
Do kids even have P.E. at school anymore, I think some schools only have kids play once a day.
Give me a call and I can help you figure this out without involving making new laws. People want to be healthy, want to have healthy kids, they just do not know what to eat. When raising my kids we were poor but still managed to eat well !!

Posted by: honeybee1 | February 11, 2010 10:10 AM | Report abuse

Kids don't get out and play like they used to, anymore. I don't know if parents are afraid to let them out, lest they be abducted, or that it is much more entertaining to stay indoors. Even if some diets, due to the family's finances, are longer on starches and "bad" carbohydrates, than on proteins and fresh fruits and veggies, these calories can be burned off with some movement. Let's make outdoor play popular again.

Posted by: creatia52 | February 11, 2010 12:06 PM | Report abuse

Kristina, families can solve obesity problems. I am glad that the first lady has made childhood obesity her cause because more attention to the problem and information will get out to the public. Your column went overboard went it strayed into evil corporation land. People don't have to be fat, no matter what McDonald's sells or how it is subsidized.

Posted by: creatia52 | February 11, 2010 12:16 PM | Report abuse

But you have compared enough food to make several meals with the cost of one meal at McDonald's. You are being silly.

Plus - why does it take 3 hours?
Here is the food you are buying:

head of organic romaine lettuce ($3.49/head). Add tomato ($4.99/pound), sweet onion ($1.49/pound), and carrots ($2.49/bunch); skim milk ($2.99/half gallon), hardboiled egg ($3.69/dozen), and whole wheat bread ($3.49/loaf),

Here's what you can make: salad, hardboiled eggs (are you buying them hardboiled? why - it would be better to have them raw and you can make them a variety of ways) plus bread or toast.

People eat McDonald's because they want to. It is taking OVER in France - bistros are dying out.

Fight obesity - but stop blaming the same old evil business model. It's silly.

Just eat smaller portions of less fattening food, and get some exercise.

I hope the program succeeds. I just hope we don't have to eat in a roped-off "fat" area like I see the poor smokers shivering in the cold doing.

Posted by: Amelia5 | February 11, 2010 12:22 PM | Report abuse

I am so happy that someone has finally taken it upon themselves to save our children and our country from obesity. It is a decease that is killing thousands of people every day. And those who don’t actually die from it are suffering a miserable existence.
I know about this very well because I was overweight since I was 6 years old and on a diet since I was 11 years old. At age 40 I weighed 400 plus pounds. By now if I was still 400 pounds I would probably be in a wheel chair. As a last resort after trying every diet imaginable and failing at all of them, I had gastric bypass March 2001. Some people think this is a magic surgery, you lose the weight and it never comes back. That is a false statement. It is a tool that I use to help me feel full. Before I had the surgery I never felt full. I had to learn the difference in head hunger and stomach hunger. I also learned that DIETS DO NOT WORK!!!! I have made a lifestyle change, by creating healthy eating and exercise habits. I am 9 years out from gastric bypass. I am 49 years old and LIFE.....LIFE IS SO GOOD IN THIS BODY!!!!!!! I can do things I could not do in my 20'S and I am almost 50. I have a list of things I want to do before I die, a bucket list if you will. Whitewater rafting was one and it was awesome......I feel like a kid....I feel like there is nothing physically I can't do in this body......THAT IS AMAZING!!!
For 5 ½ years I worked as a Bariatric Program Assistant at a local hospital doing support groups, seminars and all the follow ups on our patients. I was laid off in October. But continue to help others by facilitating my own Support Group at a local church. I also post on my blog ( and many other blogs do interviews in magazines to tell people it is never too late to get healthy, and I am a motivational speaker. Since I was laid off I am attending school (went back after 30 years) to become a registered nurse and continue my work in Bariatrics. I feel that this is my calling, to help others get healthy and with my last breath that is what I will do. I teach them about making healthy eating choices and how important exercise is.
Doing what you are doing, starting in the schools with the children is wonderful. Many children have never been introduced to fresh fruits and vegetables that really taste good! If they learn to like them perhaps they will tell their parents and eventually they will be served at home as well.
Also obesity usually starts from home, our parents, grandparents are obese and with the genetics and the bad eating habits at home our children (like me) are just doomed to be obese.
Thank you again for all you are doing and for bringing the awareness out! If there is anything I can do to help please let me know.

I applaud what you are doing.

Ginger Rock

Posted by: gaginger | February 11, 2010 12:53 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for pointing out our government support of corporate advertising and bad agricultural subsidies as a large part of this. I just wish Mrs. Obama had called her initiative something like "Healthy Children". Obesity is a harsh term (even though medically true) to apply to children. Given a healthy diet and lots of exercise, I am thinking children can outgrow their weight more easily than adults can and the label is too much stigma for a kid.

Posted by: crs1 | February 11, 2010 12:57 PM | Report abuse

@junomoneta88 et al., who post such things as: Ordinary Americans can solve their obesity problems, for it is possible to eat healthily and inexpensively. Eliminate fast food and sugary drinks, and load up on legumes; meat, fish and nuts in moderation; and vegetables and fruits.

That certainly sounds simple, doesn't it? It's just a choice between health and junk, good and bad. The problem is that a lot of people really, truly do not have such an easy choice. Have you been to an inner city recently? How many super markets have you seen?

Let's say you're a single mom and work all day to support your kids. You have no car, so you take the bus to work. You leave early in the morning and get back in the early evening, at which point you have to make dinner for your family. Do you take the bus all the way out to the supermarket for those healthy choices, or do you pick up McD's at the corner for less time *and* less money? Perhaps you'd like to make a weekly shopping trip to stock up on all you need - but how do you get so many groceries home when you're taking the bus? There are a lot of factors that go into why people eat poorly, and fundamental problems (like a dirth of grocery stores in poorer areas) need to be addressed before the epidemic subsides.

Posted by: greyhound1 | February 11, 2010 2:16 PM | Report abuse

Where the heck do you shop?

In Chicago, here is what I pay for these same items in a neighborhood with education levels, housing prices, and incomes all exceed the median for the area.

Iceberg head of lettuce: 99 cents each
Sweet onion: 69 cents a pound
Tomato on the vine: $2.99 a pound
Grade A Large eggs: $1.29 a dozen
Carrots: $1.49 a bunch
Skim milk: $2.89 a gallon
Whole Wheat bread: $2.49 per loaf

I can feed two people with a startling menu for just $10 per day. For $12 a day I can add a fine wine. For $14 I can a fine wine and dessert.

Would you like a Spinach Quiche with caramalized onions at 75 cents per 6 oz serving? I can feed carnivores and omnivores. I get you vegan cuisine at double my current cost. I can get you organic vegan at 125% premium on my cost.

Leave the DC-Manhattan cocoon. It is destroying your case.

You could stop subsidizing corn, sugar, and soybeans which artificially lowers the prices of sweeteners and dietary substitutes, but progressives don't know how to reduce one side of the equation. They only know how to add to both sides.

Posted by: snannerb | February 11, 2010 3:44 PM | Report abuse

The dysfunctional liberal mind believes that the government can regulate and tax behavior in order to fix every problem (as they perceive it) with America and Americans.

They will never get that parents don't want their help/intrusion into the raising of their kids. They, after all, know what's best for us. Message to liberals including Michelle Obama...mind your own damn business and worry about your own kids. If people want to raise fat kids, it's none of your concern. WE DON'T NEED YOUR HELP!

btw, all of my kids are normal or slightly under weight.

Posted by: lagrangeee | February 11, 2010 3:46 PM | Report abuse

Excellent idea, raise the cost of food for poor people. Hey if they are starving they won't be fat right?

Posted by: robtr | February 11, 2010 3:48 PM | Report abuse


"The problem is that a lot of people really, truly do not have such an easy choice. Have you been to an inner city recently? How many super markets have you seen?"

Yes. I live in one. I also travel to rich and poor neighborhoods to feed people of all incomes. I've done this in Chicago, Queens, and Milwaukee.

Inner cities do need more grocery stores. However, the big obstacle is how current local government penalizes the small businesses to publicly subsidize the larger grocers at the same time the government tries to keep "big box" stores from meeting the demands of residents.

Posted by: snannerb | February 11, 2010 3:48 PM | Report abuse

I think there should be an entertainment tax. Think of the amount of money the govt could raise by adding $1 or $2 to each movie ticket sold. Then we could move on to concerts and professional sports and they could probably tack on $5 per ticket there.

Next we can get them to raise taxes on luxury food items like organic produce and Starbucks, $1 per item there should do. Then we can move on to designer clothing, who notice if we taxed those at maybe $20 per item.

This is fun. I can see why you leftists like playing this game so much. Tax everyone that doesn't matter to you, as in the common people. So, I am going to start thinking up things that mostly liberal white people like Katrina VH use on a regular basis and start demanding that those things be taxed more because everyone knows that the liberals have plenty of money to donate to the govt.

Posted by: MikeJW | February 11, 2010 3:52 PM | Report abuse

"Palin's plan for the economy:

'Wait, let me look at my handprompter, Oh yeah, a moose in a pot for everybody'"

It is absolutely hilarious reading comments making fun of Palin for writing three or four words on her hand from supporters of a "president" who used a teleprompter in front of a kindergarten class.

There is mounds and mounds of scientific evidence demonstrating beyond a shadow of a doubt that organic produce has absolutely no health benefits at all over normal produce and may actually be worse for you because it is fertilized with manure. Leave it to a left-wing elitist to push expensive produce so she can pat herself on the back. Here is a link to one such study, but if you go to Google you can find hundreds more:

Well of course it is cheaper to eat at McDonalds Katrina, especially when you are pushing outrageously overpriced "organic" produce. Organic produce is for people who think their feces doesn't stink.

As typical from pretty much everything that comes out of the mouth of a left wing nanny-stater, this boils down to "in what way can the government force me to do something for my own good".

Posted by: Bob65 | February 11, 2010 3:57 PM | Report abuse

It is absolutely amazing that someone would decry the fact that people are eating McDonalds because they can't afford anything else and then turn around and start listing prices on organic produce which is up to 40% more expensive. I would use the words clueless elitist to describe the author, but I don't like stating the obvious

Posted by: Bob65 | February 11, 2010 4:01 PM | Report abuse

Katrina is not a liberal. She's not a leftist. She's not a Democrat. Katrina is a progressive.

The progressives are seriously bonkers. They are borderline delusional. They ignore mountains of evidence, peer reviewed and mated with the devishly handsome "the science", to make their arguments.

They can live in their 11021 zip code cave. But dear god, if you're going to debate please stop ignoring the facts.

Posted by: snannerb | February 11, 2010 4:02 PM | Report abuse

This coming from someone who no doubt rips her eyeballs out when Wal-Mart proposes a SuperCenter with low-priced groceries near an inner city.

These people are sneering, sanctimonious busybodies. To hell with them all.

Posted by: EnvironMental | February 11, 2010 4:33 PM | Report abuse

Madame Sasquatch, awesome!!!!!!!!

Posted by: neoplasia | February 11, 2010 4:42 PM | Report abuse

I want the government out of the food business!!!they did a disgusting job so far...
1., no subsidies for anybody, fast or slow food, that is how you level the playing field
2., yes, people eat horribly in this country, and I have never seen that many obese people as I see around here, moved here from Europe
3., food stamps should be allowed to be used only for staples: vegetables, meat, milk, cheese, no cake, cookies, ice cream, soda,....
4., look at school lunches or day care food, they are horrific, all government subsidized, our tax payer dollars working for making kids fat and develop diabetes
5., look at WIC, no juice, and NO FORMULA,
FORMULA should be a prescription drug, for mothers who ARE NOT ABLE TO NURSE their babies,,,it is disgusting that even Hispanic and other ethnic women who would never even dream about using formula to feed their babies with formula, but because WIC offers it for them for free more an more of them are using formula, instead of breastfeeding.... and formula is the first step towards obesity...

So Mrs. Obama, you got a good idea, something needs to be done, and that something is LESS GOVERNMENT, NOT MORE,

Posted by: tinike7 | February 11, 2010 4:44 PM | Report abuse

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