First lady Michelle Obama gets active in the fight against childhood obesity

Tuesday, February 9, 2010
First lady Michelle Obama shells peas June 16 with fifth graders from Bancroft Elementary School in the kitchen after they harvested vegetables from the first lady's garden on the South Lawn of The White House in Washington. The garden has given the first lady a platform to speak about the country's childhood obesity problem, the benefits of eating fresh food and growing your own, and to teach children to appreciate vegetables early in life. (Associated Press file photo)

WASHINGTON -- By now, it is abundantly clear that Michelle Obama loves french fries.

The first lady talks about this "guilty pleasure" all the time, trying to ward off any notion that she is a nutrition nanny even as she cajoles Americans to eat better. Her conversation with the public about the nation's health and fitness is about to get a lot more pointed.

After laying the groundwork for nearly a year, she launches a campaign today against childhood obesity that she hopes will change the way millions of Americans eat, exercise, look and feel.

To succeed, she will have to take on powerful forces that have left one-third of children overweight. Parents are busy. School cafeteria meals compete with vending machines. Food companies spend billions hawking fatty snacks to children. Poor neighborhoods where stores have nary a banana nor a head of broccoli in sight, and sedentary children and teens.

The first lady hopes to put America on track to solve the childhood obesity problem in a generation.

"Thank God it's not going to be solely up to me," Obama said recently, stressing that the solution will require stepped-up effort from parents, schools, businesses, not-for-profit groups, health professionals and governments.

She's bringing together Cabinet members, mayors, sports and entertainment figures, business leaders and more to announce the details of the administration's effort. That will involve promoting healthier schools, increasing physical activity for youngsters, improving access to healthy foods and giving people more nutrition information.

"Eating habits and lifestyles begin at a young age by the routines and examples that parents set for their children," dietician and nutrition counselor at Jackson Healing Arts Jamie Market said in an e-mail. "Parents may want to set good examples, but unfortunately with busy schedules and tight budgets, convenience often wins out over nutrition when it comes to meal time."

Market said she is working with others in the medical community to start a nutrition and exercise program for area children, and both Saint Francis Medical Center and Southeast Missouri Hospital plan to launch programs. Fitness Plus will start a nationally-recognized 10-week program called Shapedown at the end of the month. HealthPoint Fitness is gearing up to start PHIT (Promoting Health in Teens) with weekly dietitian advice and personal training time for teenagers.

National experts say the road is long.

"You don't just go from epidemic obesity to epidemic leanness," asid obesity expert Dr. David Katz, director of Yale University's Prevention Research Center.

A decade ago, the government's "Healthy People" program set a 2010 target that just 5 percent of children would be overweight or obese. The most updated government figures, released last month, weighed in at 32 percent for 2007-2008. The childhood obesity rate has at least held steady in recent years, but at levels that still leave today's children on track to die younger than their parents.

The first lady has prepared for the obesity campaign by falling asleep over briefing papers, consulting with legislators, Cabinet members and policy experts, and speaking about the challenges that overstressed parents face in doing right by their children. And, famously, by hula hooping on the South Lawn to promote the need to get children moving.

Jeff Levi, executive director of the Trust for America's Health, a Washington-based public health research organization, said the first lady, who speaks as a mother as well as a public figure, can have a huge effect by helping change parents' and children's attitudes toward food and exercise. But an effective campaign against childhood obesity also will require more money to carry out programs to help families turn changed attitudes into action.

"We already have in place a constellation of programs that together can provide the opportunity to make the changes in schools and communities that would make a difference," he said. "The problem is that they are not fully funded."

Some ideas for addressing the problem include increasing federal money to make healthier school lunches for poor children, improve nutrition standards for school lunches; get the chips and doughnuts out of school vending machines and expand time for school recess and physical education, among many others.

Ideas abound for addressing the problem:

* increase federal money to make healthier school lunches for poor kids.

* improve nutrition standards for school lunches; get the chips and doughnuts out of school vending machines.

* expand time for school recess and physical education.

* use federal incentives to encourage low-income families to buy healthier foods.

* prod food makers to stop targeting children with ads for high-calorie treats on TV and in online video games.

* get more restaurants to print nutrition information on menus.

* do more medical screening for obesity in children.

* improve food labeling.

* provide more behavior counseling to overweight kids.

The list goes on.

The school lunch program, which is up for an overhaul by Congress this year, is one sure area of focus, and the administration is working with legislators on how to revise it. There should be some extra money available: President Barack Obama's proposed budget calls for an additional $1 billion a year for child nutrition programs. Last year's economic stimulus package included $500 million for one-time grants to help states and communities tackle smoking, obesity and various preventable health problems.

Dora Rivas, president of the School Nutrition Association and director of food services for the Dallas public schools, said Michelle Obama can be a "great motivator" for parents and kids. But, she said, schools need more federal dollars to work more fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains into lunches, and to keep up with the growing numbers of children who qualify for free or reduced-cost meals.

Katz, the Yale obesity expert, said that while more money always helps, much can be done through sheer will and low-cost ingenuity to help build more physical activity into daily life and to motivate people to eat better.

As people demand better food, companies will respond with better choices, he says.

Like the first lady, though, Katz identified "food deserts" -- poor areas where it's hard to find stores that offer healthy foods -- as a particularly tough problem, one that will require addressing broader social inequities in society.

The first lady said last month she won't be satisfied unless she knows she's made a difference.

"That's the legacy I want," she said. "I want to leave something behind that we can say, because of this time that this person spent here, this thing has changed."

Features editor Chris Harris contributed to this report.


On the Net:

Michelle Obama discussing obesity campaign: http://tinyurl.com/y9hjlt9

Yale University's Prevention Research Center: http://www.yalegriffinprc.org/

Healthy People program: http://www.healthypeople.gov/

American Heart Association: http://www.americanheart.org

Trust for America's Health: http://healthyamericans.org/

School Nutrition Association: www.schoolnutrition.org/

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