Four Thoughts on Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” Campaign, Celebrating First Anniversary

Today Michelle Obama celebrates the first anniversary of her worthy cause Let’s Move, the campaign to end childhood obesity within one generation. Launched early last year, the program aims to achieve its noble goal  by

  • improving the nutritional quality of school lunches
  • adding more physical activity to schools
  • providing access to fresh and healthy foods in all communities by eliminating food deserts
  • providing nutrition education for kids and their parents.

How can the first lady achieve this without any legislative power? And with so many stakeholders set to LOSE if her program succeeds?

By sheer leadership, willpower, and charisma, Mrs. Obama has made some notable strides in the past 12 months:

  • First and most importantly, she has raised awareness to a new level. Everyone is now worried about obesity and its long term effect on this country.
  • Secondly, she has forged a dialog and partnership with the food industry, most notably Wal-Mart, to lower sodium, fat, and sugar in thousands of foods, as well as open up supermarkets in inner city food deserts.
  • And no doubt, her access to the ear of the President, has had some effect on the child nutrition bill.

However, it is highly doubtful that this momentum will continue past a second or third year. Without getting into too much politics here, Obama 2012 does not seem very likely. And a new first lady in 2013 will probably have a new agenda to push (childhood literacy was Laura Bush’s project). All the PR and photo-ops of food industry executives circa 2010-2011 will quickly be forgotten.

And if we examine each of the above achievements, we realize, that despite their well meaning, they are insignificant in the grand scheme of things:

1. Awareness is not enough. When the cheapest option for a hardworking mom to feed her kids is to pick up a pizza pie or a bucket of KFC on the way home from the office, what does it help her to know that her family needs to consume more veggies.

By the way, McDonald’s had its best year ever in 2010, with sales growth both domestically (4.4% !!!) and internationally (yes, we are exporting obesity).

2. The partnership with food manufacturers and retailers is interesting. At the end of the day these corporations are out to make money. And the most profitable products are the least healthy. Partly due to farm subsidies that make sugar-like sweeteners (HFCS) so cheap. Will Michelle Obama tackle the 2012 Farm Bill? Heck, even Barack is not going to touch that can of worms.

3. It’s hard to see how the child nutrition bill, adding pennies a day to an already low cost school lunch will have an impact. Yes, there are some grass roots local success stories, but they are an exception to the rule.

4. Our entire society is set up for fast food and for junk food. It is obesogenic from the moment we wake up til we go to sleep. Just look at the Superbowl commercials this past Sunday, 12 out of 12 were for junk. While the USDA is telling us to eat less, companies are making larger and larger portions. Just read this recent quote:

“The bottom line is we’re in the business of making money, and we make money off of what we sell,” said Beth Mansfield, spokeswoman for CKE Restaurants Inc., which owns the Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s chains. “If we wanted to listen to the food police and sell nuts and berries and tofu burgers, we wouldn’t make any money and we’d be out of business.”

And thus we enter 2011 with a warm fuzzy feeling in our tummy – the first lady is watching out for our kids. If only she had the real power to do so …

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  • Ken Leebow

    Way back in the 1960s didn’t President Kennedy set up a fitness program for us? Um, if we depend on any governmental agency to assist with diet, health, and lifestyle issues, we are in trouble. And let’s hope they don’t “declare a war on obesity”. We know how that goes (war on drugs, etc.)

    And, the message of Eat Less, Exercise More is a myth and detrimental to our health. The fact is: If you are eating a healthier foods, you can eat more – hey, that’s great news. And, if you are eating a typical fast food meal (or junk food diet), it will take about 2-hours to burn it off. So, the exercise part of the equation does not work either.

    Contrary to popular belief, it is easy to live a healthier lifestyle. You just have to want it.

    PS. As an aside, starting with Nixon, we were going to have an energy policy that moved us away from dependence on Middle East oil.

    And as to your McDonald’s observation: Its stock is near an all-time high: So, people are lovin’ it.

    • Guest

      You just have to want it is right.

      An example: My workplace is quiet uncommon as it provides a significant amount of free food for the employees. Free, as in “here, eat it”. There’s breakfast cereals (shredded wheat, raisin bran, cheerio’s), milk (skim and 2%), a stack of fresh fruit (today there are mangos, bananas, apples, oranges, clementine’s and pears out there). There’s also doughnuts.

      Guess what is depleted to zero every single day.

      It’s not the fruit platter.

      The food cop would say “well, you shouldn’t OFFER the doughnuts!”

      These are adults. In fact, they are adults who work in the food industry and have educations and background in nutrition, food science, and the like.

      Still, removing the economic pressures completely, people WHO KNOW BETTER still go straight for the fatty sugary crap.

      It has little to do with money. It has lots to do with people are hardwired to want fat and meat and salt and sugar.

  • heidi

    Yes, i would LOVE to see them actually make fresh fruits and veggies more affordable and accessable (think of people in low income food deserts) insted of just telling kids they are more nutritious. What good does it do if a mom cannot afford to regularly give them to her children..

  • heidi

    @Ken Leebow
    you know, with all the money the government medical programs pay out towards the obese medical issues and weight loss surgeries they could put towards maybe options for personal training which might help motivate people to lose weight and become healthier.

  • hopebaby

    What’s with the snide political comment? President Obama will be still be around after 2012 in my opinion and one opinion counts as much as another but it still has nothing to do with food. You just lost a subscriber.

  • heidi

    you know, i think he may have just been speaking from a standpoint that many people think. i am democrat and still feel that Obama may not win a 2012 re-election.

  • Nancy-The Frugal Dietitian

    I am tired of people blaming government…we are government (I have no idea who will be President 2012). Stop blaming media. Kids need to watch less TV. People make their own choices. The sad part is that kids are getting the short end of this debate. Kids brains and bodies are growing: years ago kids height and weight went up together. The poor diets in-utero, poor infant feeding, starting “junk food” before even a year and continuing throughout life – this all has an effect all the way through adulthood. Parents need to take responsibility!!! The large increasing % of obesity in children/adults is a new phenomenon. Wake up Parents!!

  • Jennifer McClanahan

    I have to agree with Nancy, we make our choices. Yes, we are overwhelmed with bad options but parents do have the ability to make good choices and hard decisions. While I appreciate and support the advocacy of healthy food in schools, it seems like we keep letting parents off the hook. We have family meals in my home most nights, I takes a lot of planning to make that happen but I do it because I am ultimately responsible for feeding my daughter a healthy meal in a healthy environment.

  • Manky

    “Without getting into too much politics here, Obama 2012 does not seem very likely.”

    This is actually the first place I’ve read or heard that, and I’m a news junkie. He ain’t as popular as he once was and may never win back the House, but the Republican field of possible candidates is pretty fetid and his own polling is still pretty good. Oh ye of little faith.

  • Foodie, Formerly Fat

    Michelle Obama’s campaign has been outstanding and I have been so pleased to see her tackle this issue and bring it to the forefront of our national attention.

    That said, I agree with you that there is only so much that she can do. So much comes down to what we chose to do with the information that we have. Getting people educated on what is and is not healthy isn’t the only step necessary to solve the problem. People still act against their own long term self-interest because they are giving in to the real and difficult pressures of the now. Of course, even when a parent knows that their children need to be eating vegetables if they can’t afford them, can’t get easy access to them in their grocery stores (a problem in many poor-urban locations) or don’t have time to cook them those kids aren’t going to be eating those veggies.

    There has to be a greater shift in our cultural perspectives about food. We need to start showing people that eating healthier food doesn’t have to mean eating food that is more expensive, less convenient, or less tasty. That’s part of what I try to do on my blog (although I try to have a light touch so as not to scare away people who aren’t ready for the full assault!). But I try to show people that cooking whole foods at home in healthy ways can be delicious, nutritious, and satisfying without being too difficult.

  • Magnus

    @hopebaby, @manky
    Well said. Michelle is waging an excellent campaign and there’s no way to predict how long it will continue. Let’s hope it does and save the pessimism for the pundits!