Why Michelle Obama’s Initiative to Reduce Childhood Obesity Will Fail

First Lady Michelle Obama has a legacy she wants to leave behind: drastically reducing childhood obesity. Yesterday at a Mayors Conference in Washington DC,  she announced a new initiative in this spirit, to be formally announced in February.

After presenting the dismal stats (around 18% of kids are obese), Mrs. Obama outlined what is to be a joint effort at the federal, municipal, and non-profit levels.

“The idea here is very simple: to put in place commonsense, innovative solutions that empower families and communities to make healthy decisions for their kids.”

The main points:

  • improved school lunches
  • more physical activity (including school phys-ed cut due to budget constraints)
  • access to fresh and healthy foods in all communities (nutrition deserts are all too common in poor urban areas)
  • nutrition education for kids and their parents.

This is a great plan, and Mrs Obama deserves kudos for bringing childhood obesity to our collective attention. No doubt her status as the nation’s number one mom, with personal experiences and challenges in feeding her family, make her one of the best champions for the cause.

However…

I’m sorry, First Lady, your plan, while commendable, doesn’t have a fighting chance.

Here’s why:

It is far more profitable for America to “fix” obesity related ailments than to prevent them. A partial list of industries that stand to lose if people actually begin to eat right, stop gaining weight and stop getting sick -

  • Junk food manufacturers (over 100 billion dollars in annual revenues)
  • Weight Loss (tens of billions of dollars)
  • Supplements (tens of billions)
  • Healthcare (over 100 billion dollars annually in obesity related treatments)
  • Fast food establishments (over 300 billion dollars)

Now here’s who stands to gain from Mrs Obama’s initiative:

  • you.

You. A single consumer, without a lobby, without a voice, without a chance against the “machine”.

It sounds crazy, but if the First Lady’s plan works and we actually slim down and become healthy, millions of jobs will be lost, the economy will take a severe step backward, and hundreds of politicians will lose important financial support from the lobbies representing companies in the aforementioned industries. Do you think they’ll let that happen?

The food industry will outspend the government and nonprofits by several orders of magnitude to keep kids munching and slurping away at junk food. Yes, they’ll donate a million dollars here and there to rebuild a school gym, or pay to create community nutrition groups. But then they’ll go and spend billions on advertising junk food for kids on TV, the Internet, and through product placement in movies, video games, and more.

Sorry for the pessimism folks, but childhood obesity is a symptom of a far larger problem of unbalanced interests. Currently only shareholder interest drive business, with social, health and environmental costs totally externalized by corporations. Mrs. Obama needs help from her husband on this one. It’s a biggie. Unless the government place the responsibility for obesity on the industry that created it, the results of the First Lady’s efforts will be summarized by a good photo-op, some PR, and a few isolated “success stories.”

What to do at the supermarket:

Not to end on a sour note, there is hope. If each of us, in her own small circle, takes action and starts to buy real food – mostly unprocessed, mostly from the supermarket perimeter, perhaps from local farmers on occasion – our collective actions will send a clear message to the food industry – give us real food.

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  • http://www.betterschoolfood.org Dr. Susan Rubin

    You’re right! In our country, war is profitable, peace is not. Disease is profitable and health is not. In my years of school food advocacy, I’ve learned many times over that bottomw line is money, not profit health.

    When school gardens flourish in every school, along with food based education that teaches kids the truth about industrialized food and agribusiness, you can bet that industry will put up a big fight against it. We are starting to see a bit of that now.

    I believe that three are many concerned parents like Michelle Obama across the country who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty for the sake of their kids. A mom’s bottom line is their children’s health and well-being, not corporate profit. We moms will create ripples that turn into huge waves of change. The paradigm will shift.

    As for “what to do in the supermarket”? Get the heck out! Visit a farmer’s market instead, start a community garden. Pay your farmer not your grocer!

  • annie

    case in point: a young couple getting in the car: toddler, parents; immediately they get seated in the car, the mother lights up a cigarette and hands the kid a lollipop.. this at 10 am in the morning.. how do you get it across the middle america that this is detrimental and damaging without infringing on their “free will”? the “it can’t happen to me” attitude prevails and the cycle continues. :(

  • Eleza

    While you make a good point….I do think that those policies can make a huge difference despite all the pressure from the food industry. Studies show that over 1/3 of the total daily calories for children are consumed at school and if the school food environment is improved to be lower in fat, more nutritious, and there is less access to soda and junk foods in schools (which is already happening in many schools across America) it will definately help with the obesity epidemic. Kids are sponges when they are young so I think many policy makers are understanding to fight the obesity epidemic you have to start early. You have to remember that rising health care costs is a HUGE concern and major corporations have a huge interest in that so there is some lobby power to fighting childhood obestiy when you put health care costs and chronic diseses into perspective.

  • Casie

    This is hands down the worst, most backwards and pessimistic logic I have ever read and words cannot express my disgust with your post. As someone who works in the health care field I can testify that not only are health officials excited about the new health trends surfacing among chain and fast food restaurants but theyre embracing them. Sure, we’d love to promote whole foods and organic eating but with various socioeconomic status, we’d all rather encourage the healthiest options available.

    And regarding profits, people are more concerned about their personal wallets and we all know that obesity not only forces a strain on tax dollars but on families. Not to mention, we all know that caring for a child with diabetes and other obesity related health problems is far more expensive than an apple and a nice walk outside.

    And jobs lost? Are you kidding me? We’ve seen by now that manufacturers and restaurant chains don’t “go down,” they conform. Every restaurant has a healthy option section and even chains like Taco Bell, McDonald’s, and KFC (available in neighborhoods of any social status) offer healthier options. As for the health field, Im sure their attention can simply shift to more pressing chronic diseases. Any way you look at it, there is room for growth in any industry, even when childhood obesity rates are reduced.

    But the bottom line is that that doesnt even matter. Because shes not targeting big business. Shes targeting the average family and the public school systems. Two places where her voice will be heard and where health efforts are already in place. If it starts at home by educating families, there wont be failure.

    Mrs. Obama’s plan is full of optimism and care and comes with just the right amount of heart. She clearly cares about the future of this country and the success and health of American children. Nothing accomplishes an agenda like superb business savvy and passion and she has tons of both.

    • http://www.fooducate.com/blog Editorial Staff

      @Casie,
      Thanks for your civil contribution to the discussion.

      While Mrs. Obama’s heart and business savvy are in the right place, there are forces much stronger than families’ personal awareness at play. What’s going to impact a child more – 100′s of junk food commercials a week, or a 30 minute pep talk at school with general nutrition guidelines such as “eat in moderation”? (most likely sponsored by Coke or Frito-Lay).

      And if you want to dig into the reason McDonald’s is doing so well in the past few years – I’ll let you in on a little secret – it’s not the salads. It’s the 99 cent burgers that opned up an entirely new demographic for them.

  • http://www.fooducate.com/blog Editorial Staff

    @Eleza
    And do you really think school district superintendents will remove fast food and soft drink dispensing machines? They are a source of revenue for junk food manufacturers AND the schools too. And no, switching from cola to snapple doesn’t cut it, not even switching to juice (lots of sugar).
    If schools would go back to plenty of clean fresh and cold tap water fountains, that would be significant. But who is going to support that?

  • Artie Kamya

    I would like to comment on First Lady Michelle Obama’s strategies to end childhood overweight/obesity in the US. I believe that the First Lady is overlooking a resource found on every school campus – physical education teachers.

    As a physical educator, we have not been asked to “step up to the plate” on this problem. I would like to suggest that each state be required to implement a state-wide accountability program based on the development of very specific student outcomes that include the CDC physical activity recommendations and the five recommended obesity prevention behaviors (ex: eating 5-9 fruits/veggies, limiting sugar-added beverages) supported by the medical community.

    This program must be based on developing motor skills that lead to lifetime fitness, the attainment of a consistent set of “PE Power Standards,” and a method for gathering this data school-by-school and teacher-by-teacher, just as we do in reading, writing, and math.

    It must go beyond fitness testing and gathering BMI data. It must dramatically change the actual behaviors of physical education teachers and hold them accountable to REALLY TEACH. If this were to be done, I believe it would greatly impact our childhood obesity rates.

    Presently, there is no accountability for K-12 PE. It is about time that we hold physical education professionals accountable as we do with classroom teachers.

    It’s like saying we need to have “more and better science and math professionals,” but not involving the K-12 science and math educators in the process.

    A PE Teacher who Supports Nutrition Ed,

    Artie Kamiya
    North Carolina

  • Monica

    is up to each individual not the government.

    The only thing that made me change my old ways was a desire to be healthy and in shape. I had no clue about nutrition, all i knew was that i had to eat lots of fruits and vegetables. But i started to do research on my own. I wanted to know if what people say is really true or a myth (salad always healthy, bread makes you fat). And i put what i learned into practice.

    Now people can’t believe it’s me. They say “im so jealous” and comment on my improved appearance but they are not willing to make any changes. They say “sorry i can’t eat like you i rather have some cookies” or “vegetables are for rabbits, they taste horrible!”

    I think the people that will switch to a healthy lifestyle are the ones that really WANT to, with or without government intervention.

  • Daniel

    From an economic perspective it currently makes more sense to eat foods that are considered less healthy. Prof Drewnowski at University of Washington has a body of work supporting this. In terms of calories per dollar, vegetables are nearly 500% more costly than junk food! A current Cornell University study is examining the impact of subsidizing healthy foods. (more information: http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/Dec09/ARRAWansink.html) There is considerable support for “twinkie taxes” but since when does it make sense to tax something that is heavily subsidized (HFCS)? That’s just bad business.

    The majority of Americans don’t have enough knowledge of the physical sciences or nutrition to fully understand health claims made by food marketers. So let’s remove them. If as a society we are inundated with conflicting messages, a state of mass confusion is created, a current issue that could be addressed by government intervention.

    @Monica If it is easier to live a healthy lifestyle, people will do that regardless of want they want or at least what they think they want; it is human nature. You touch on interesting point that people are not willing to make conscious changes, so why not make the changes subconscious? After all the best diet is the one you don’t know you are on.

  • Casie

    Pardon my honesty but I was so struck by your …. well, you get the idea….
    Clearly McDonalds is successful for a number of reasons that dont include a diverse menu, however, I wasnt concerned with their numbers. They are merely a fine example of even the lowest, most unhealthy chains that are willing to jumped on board with healthier options which indicates a big business’ willingness to conform to the degrees they have to. They OFFER healthier options which is a step. No one is naive enough to believe that Obamas ambitions are the end-all-be-all of solutions. But any improvement helps. And any amount of success with it is beneficial on some level.

    • http://www.fooducate.com/blog Editorial Staff

      @Casie

      The effort is likened to shooting arrows at an oncoming tank. Brave, commendable, newsworthy. But futile.
      And things are getting worse – just yesterday the Supreme court decided that there should be no limit on corporate campaign contributions. Now you tell me, who is a senator or congresswoman going to think about when it comes time to make brave decisions about vending machines in schools? You and I, or major contributors such as Coca Cola?

      More on the decision at Marion Nestles’s Food Politics Blog – http://www.foodpolitics.com/2010/01/the-supreme-court-and-food-politics/

  • eleza

    @Editorial Staff
    I guess you don’t follow enough food policy because many school districts and states have already passed School wellness policies banning the sale of sodas in vending machines and other junk food. There are ways for schools and food companies to still make money off of selling bottled water, vitamin waters, and some fruit juices that are wayy lower in added sugars. While there is still a long way to go, it is imperative for public policy to try to improve the school food environment and they ARE making some progress already. Plus, most of these big food companies like coca-cola also own food companies that produce bottled waters and other more healthful options so I don’t see how they would lose, they would just need to shift their supply to more healtful options, even if that demand is at first being more determined by policy than actual demand.

    • http://www.fooducate.com/blog Editorial Staff

      There is definitely progress being made, but it is un-uniform. Vitamin water is a jike – in many cases it contains loads of sugar to mask the bitter taste of the vitamins. And what happened to tap water fountains? Why do we need to educate our kids to buy water in plastic bottles?

  • http://www.youarenotafitperson.com Mark Vaughan

    Great article and the more time I spend looking into this profitable industry the more I realize how right you are. There is minimal money in proper weightloss and the money in the scams is used to drown the public in misinformation and lobbyists protecting con artists.
    All of that said, there are some things we could do to turn the tide a little.

    #1. Junk food manufactures and fast food joints will make anything we demand. They don’t care at all what we eat as long as we eat it. If incentives can be placed on developing lower calorie density, higher fibre foods, we might have some manufactured foods that taste great and aren’t so bad for us.

    #2. Pressure government to revise the DSHEA so that supplements have to prove their claims before they make them. Along with the revisions to the DSHEA the government would have to commit to enforcement and fines that would be commiserate with the profits of these companies.

    #3. Tax deductions and incentives for preventative health activities.

    These three things will never counter the overall power of the economy that is driving obesity, a disease that clearly is connected to our economic system. Still, action needs to be taken. I see the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 as one of the most egregious examples of the government conspiring to make us fat. This is one of the first things that must change.

    • http://www.fooducate.com/blog Editorial Staff

      @Mark
      Great points. Another consequence of DSHEA – it really opened the floodgates for all the “qualified” (read: bogus) health claims on packaged foods as well.

  • http://www.youarenotafitperson.com Mark Vaughan

    As for vitamin water, this is precisely why we need to take action. People on this blog, who care about food and are educated are talking about vitamin water being a healthy choice!! It isn’t. Read about it here: http://youarenotafitperson.com/2009/09/15/vitamins-water-and-sugar-but-we-dont-want-you-to-see-that-all-you-need-and-then-some/

  • Heidi

    @Daniel
    i REALLY wish they would subsidize healthy foods. they have limits to what people can charge for milk, why not fruits and vegetables? I live on a limited income and have to buy frozen veggies often but would love to buy more fresh.

  • Heidi

    Also, I recieve WIC on my low income which allows for $6 in vegatables a month fo rmy son. At current prices do you think it buys much? Quite sad in terms of health. Again to maximize the amount I turn to frozen.

  • Chris

    The editorial suggests that the fast food and snack food industry is responsible for the problem (Unless the government place the responsibility for obesity on the industry that created it…) I don’t agree that they are the main culprit as for instance, the tobacco industry clearly is with smoking. There are many lessons to learn from the anti-smoking campaign, but we create a new problem when we try to find a villain instead of coming up with solutions that are positive in nature. It is easier to react to a villain but there are always unintended consequences. A strong case can be made that three unrelated but positive societal trends have contributed most to the obesity problem. The first is the very successful anti-smoking campaign. As our smoking rates have gone down, our obesity rates have gone up. There is strong evidence that tobacco use results in weight loss, and those who successfully quit often gain weight. Obviously we don’t want to return to higher levels of smoking. The second is that women have entered the work force in large numbers and no longer have the time to prepare meals at home. The result of that has been an expanding restaurant (including fast food) industry to respond to cumstomer demand. This is simply the situation – there is no need to argue about whether that change is good or bad, or what has been the impact, it happened and industry responded. Finally, our society and most of its jobs have become primarily sedentary in nature, as automation and the use of computers has increased. We may be sitting down the whole day and go home mentally taxed, but having had little or no physical activity required to do our work. The way to address the obesity problem is to make healthier choices easier and more in demand by educating the consumer (the parent and adult non-parental units) about healthy choices. We need to quit assuming no one will take responsibility once they have the facts in front of them. About twenty years ago we (health educators and most practitioners) began making a villain out of fat. We said “eat no fat and eat less fat and you will be healthier” and the result was consumer demand for low fat and no fat foods and the industry responded logically and gave high sugar no fat desserts and other high calorie low fat options and people began consuming too many simple carbs. The simple old adage is proving to be true “all foods in moderation”. If we educate parents and children about healthy options, and get people to be more active in their daily lives those people will start to demand healthy eating and active living choices in higher numbers and the industries will respond. It is only logical for industry to do so. It is unrealistic to expect society to return to sit down home cooked meals as the norm. Though many still do this and others aspire to do it, most find the need to use meals cooked away from home and that will continue to be the norm. We should do as many consumer-demand-related things as possible to make those options more healthy. Mrs. Obama’s efforts can yield positive results.

  • Lois

    I agree with the positive approach rather than reacting to the negative. I make positive and healthy choices and if other people do the same then the flow of money is not going to support the processed foods. How can profits be made by companies providing processed foods if the empowered and mindful consumer is not buying them. Instead they are creating a demand for healthy options and habits and this sets the trend and the wheels in motion toward the ultimate goal-overall health. It is the Adults responsibility (on behalf of all children) to do the right thing. Sure it requires more effort but they are worth it. I think Michelle Obama is working toward a great and very important cause and I think she will succeed.

  • Vitamins For Immune System

    Well done to Michelle Obama for at least attempting to do something about the health of those who will shape the nation’s future.
    This problem is widespread throughout the so-called developed countries, and many have tried to tackle it with varying degrees of success. Education is obviously of paramount importance here, but I also think that restaurants and other food outlets have a part to play in offering a healthy selection of dishes in addition to the fat and calorie laden options generally on the menu.

  • nicole

    @Lois

    Wow…your words are very healthy as well as your choices. I hope you have inspired the author of this as much as you have me. Someone asked me to read it and I was quite disgusted until hearing the Positive come out from the people who can truly make a difference. Each Individual can change the Money Concern…If you don’t buy it, they will stop serving it… I assure you…

  • http://www.youarenotafitperson.com Mark Vaughan

    @Lois
    I like what you are saying, but you are totally ignoring the power of advertising. I think eventually we will be able to make healthier choices, but if you think the average consumer has a clue what he or she is eating, then you are living in a bubble. Froot loops has child doctors talking about that sugar cereal being a prescription for good health!?! Chef Boyardee suggests that mini-ravioli’s are a good source of vegetables, the list goes on. Some of the worst products on the market have ‘health check’ approval.
    It is that financial driven misinformation that gets in the way of the consumer making healthy and responsible choices. All of this is driven even further by the supplement industry confusing natural with healthy, and appealing to our desire for solutions. They can claim they have pills that are all natural that will melt the fat off of us… They keep developing new useless pills and we keep buying. These companies are making billions for the State of Utah who is protecting them from the regular rigors of scientific support for their products You can read more about that here http://youarenotafitperson.com/2010/02/06/your-future-for-sale/).
    It isn’t that Michelle Obama isn’t doing a great thing, she is. It also isn’t that she is on the right track because she is, it is that the small efforts that she is making as the first lady are being overwhelmed by a greedy government, and that is sad.

  • http://www.youarenotafitperson.com Mark Vaughan

    The link was not supposed to have a bracket at the end. My apologies.

    http://youarenotafitperson.com/2010/02/06/your-future-for-sale/

  • http://www.thinkingincirclesaboutobesity.com/ Dr. Tarek Hamid

    In new book Thinking in Circles about Obesity, MIT-trained systems scholar Dr. Tarek K.A. Hamid demonstrates how the feedback lens of systems thinking helps clear up significant muddles in thinking about obesity.
    For example, much discussion of the people-environment interactions, whether in academic or public discourse, continues to cast such interactions in terms of one-way causal connections. There is perhaps no more poignant example of the bankruptcy of linear thinking than the mutual finger pointing between the food industry and obesity researchers.
    Food and beverage companies argue that they create new products in response to consumer demand and that (offering) choice is what a free society is all about.
    But it would be just as true to describe the other half of the process. From the health industry’s perspective, the food industry is a real culprit. It is more than a misnomer, many health experts argue, to suggest that it’s simply a person’s freely-chosen “lifestyle” to eat non-nutritious, high-fat energy-dense fast foods when healthier foods are much more expensive or all-together unavailable.
    But both statements are equally incomplete. The more complete statement of causality is that influence is mutual rather than one-way. The two linear relationships interact to create a closed-loop in which the variables mutually influence one another. The consumer responds to lower prices, convenience, and variety by increasing consumption of those foods. This fuels growth and innovation in the industry, leading to more attractive products, that are attractively priced (as market competition and economies of scale drive prices lower), and that are offered at more locations. All of which further increase demand.
    As Dr. Hamid argues, seeing this is terribly important. For it is the mutual influence—the closing of the loop—that creates a self-reinforcing (snowballing) dynamic that can escalate a problem or trend—like fast food—into troublesome levels. With each trip around the loop, the phenomenon strengthens as the process feeds on itself, and given enough time an initial small “event” can morph into a major development. That’s essentially how all epidemic scenarios arise.
    The discipline of closing the loops helps us see such escalation structures—structures in which we may be “trapped.” Many times such structures are of our own creation, but this has little meaning until those structures are seen. As long as we remain unaware of such structures, they continue to hold us prisoner.
    To think “straight” about systems, is to think in circles. Literally.

  • edwin

    this is a good idea mother fuckers!!!

  • Carole Berube

    Childhood obesity should begin in the obstetrician office at the outset of pregnancy and continue throughout the pediatric visits. Both offices must have knowledgeable staff to institute patient teaching because the parent must first be educated to support and maintain the health of the child. Once the child is in school, it is too late and the government, as usual, is expending billions of dollars in the wrong direction. We must remember the child must go home to    the parents. Therefore the government should be spending money to increase awareness within populations and cultures.
    Businesses aren’t responsible! It is so clear taht this initiative HAS to begin with the parent at the first light of pregnancy. Perhaps the government could be instrumental in bringing this kind of information to the attention of the health care system
    I can’t believe that no one in authority has made this claim–LOOK AT THE ROOT OF THE CAUSE