Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Personal Is Political In Food Issues: First Lady Discusses Nutrition, Eating And Health Care Reform

Food Consciousness And The First Family
e First Lady has gone on the record again about health and nutrition, as a way of encouraging change in the nation's eating habits, something which must be altered in order to make any kind of health care reform effective. As she's done in previous remarks, Mrs. Obama is suggesting balance and moderation, rather than a yogi-like abstinence when it comes to food. In an interview that aired today with Good Morning America's Robin Roberts, shot on the same day the First Lady hosted a picnic to celebrate the first big summer harvest from the White House Kitchen Garden, Mrs. Obama discussed the huge challenges of changing personal eating habits, but noted that small changes can lead to big effects--and she's very aware that none of the President's health care policy reforms can be accomplished without this. (Above: Mrs. Obama with Robin Roberts in the Grandchildren's Garden at the White House)

Mrs. Obama stressed that the struggle to eat properly and exercise regularly was as much of a problem for her own family as it is for many other families; she's couching the issue in her ongoing conversation about work-life balance, and making references to the First Family's journey toward food consciousness, as a way of highlighting the issues.

"The truth is, people are busy and they're stressed and they're tired," Mrs. Obama said. "That I know. And far be it from me to be a part of adding any more stress to any one's lives because 'Michelle Obama did it; that means I have to do it.' I have a lot of help. I've got a mother here, I've got resources. I would be remiss in not acknowledging that. But I would also urge people to think about the small things that they can do within their control."

It's the work-life balance issue that led to Mrs. Obama's focus on nutrition; she was employed full time before leaving her job to go on the campaign trail with then-candidate Obama:

"Probably like most moms, working mothers, working parents, there is a period when you struggle to figure out with a busy schedule, how do you feed your kids and make sure that they are eating healthy?" Mrs. Obama said.

Processed And Fast Foods: Off The Menu
In the same way she spoke out against low-nutrition processed and fast foods during a recent visit to Bancroft Elementary School, Mrs. Obama hit on this theme again. Mrs. Obama came to this awareness a few years ago, when the family pediatrician pointed out that daughters Sasha and Malia were both at risk for food-created disease such as diabetes and obesity, due to weight gain.

"We were eating a lot of easy, fast foods, and I saw it starting to take a toll on my kids' health," Mrs. Obama said.

Mrs. Obama said the family began eliminating processed food and adding fruits and vegetables to their diet, and started to cook more and eat out less. Mrs. Obama stressed that "little, incremental changes" like walking more and limiting soda consumption are critical for personal health as well as health care reform, for her own family as well as everyone else who eats. In advance of the President's Wednesday Health Care Town Hall in the White House, Mrs. Obama is stressing the fact that no matter what government does to promote health, personal food choice--and personal food education--becomes a critical issue, at the end of the day.

"Government can't do it all," Mrs. Obama said.

Eliminating low-nutrition and processed foods from every one's daily diet is the most logical place to begin. "Those things will eliminate obesity and cut down on costs. I mean, we're spending about $120 billion additional a year on our health care system as a result of these sort of chronic illnesses that you see that are connected to obesity. We already know that," Mrs. Obama said.

Th family focus on healthier foods has continued in the White House, obviously, with the advent of the White House Kitchen Garden, and the new opportunity to eat together each night as a family, something Mrs. Obama has frequently mentioned in other interviews. At the same time, she notes that the whole focus on nutrition doesn't exclude occasional indulgences.

"I love french fries: my favorite food," Mrs. Obama said. "That's part of what we try to teach our kids. It's not about never, ever. There are some people who make that choice. We're not one of those. I love food. It's really about balance and choices." She added that Sasha likes peas and Malia is "a pretty big broccoli fan."

School Lunches And Eliminating Food Deserts Is A Critical Issue, Too Mrs. Obama has emerged as a strong advocate for changes in the federal nutrition programs that are run by USDA, particularly the school lunch program, which has a huge amount of annual funding, but which has conflicting regulations that allow for processed and low-nutrition foods to be served. She's recently gone on the record about the importance of the nation-wide feeding programs.

"Through the lunch programs, more and more kids, particularly in this economy, are getting breakfast and lunch at school," Mrs. Obama said "And we need to do a better job of making sure that those meals are as healthy as they can be."

It's an unfortunate and terrible circumstance that many American kids only eat at school, but one that can't be overlooked. Mrs. Obama said the administration will be focusing on improving the nutritional value of government-provided meals for children during the upcoming child-nutrition re-authorization this fall. Getting fresh and healthy foods into nutrition programs is a path-breaking idea, believe it or not, because historically the federally sponsored nutrition programs have been loaded with commodity-food dumps from large food processors.

There's new interest among those on Capitlol Hill to change this, and this is also causing an outpouring of hope among the many advocacy groups that have long worked to ensure more nutritionally sound school lunches.

Meantime, the huge uptick in gardens inspired by the White House Kitchen Garden, and the drive to plant more gardens at schools and in communities that have no- or limited access to fresh produce will be a huge foodscape changer, too. The United We Serve project being coordinated by Serve.gov is an excellent way of encouraging local and school gardening, as well as service in food banks.

Related: Mrs. Obama's remark during a visit to Bancroft Elementary School are here; her remarks at the White House Kitchen Garden harvest are here.

*Watch a video version of Mrs. Obama's interview here.