More details on new obesity campaign: A "moral obligation" to improve food access and affordability, boost school and community health initiatives
In his State of the Union address on Wednesday, President Obama praised First Lady Michelle Obama for her burgeoning national campaign to combat child obesity. On Thursday, Mrs. Obama's tactical operation forces rolled into the field, for an event at the Alexandria, Virginia, YMCA, at which Mrs. Obama convened a mini summit to discuss child health. Mrs. Obama had a high-profile team with her: Surgeon General, Dr. Regina Benjamin; Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius; and Dr. Judith Palfrey, President of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
HHS will of course be a key player in Mrs. Obama's campaign. The event was to highlight the release of Dr. Benjamin's The Surgeon General’s Vision for a Healthy and Fit Nation 2010, her first public paper as Surgeon General. It lays out the necessary framework for families and communities to improve health and reduce obesity--particularly at the neighborhood level. The First Lady called the Surgeon General's report "an incredible step in a long journey that we'll have to take," which presents "both the dangers of inaction, and a vision for health for this country." All of Dr. Benjamin's recommendations support Mrs. Obama's campaign. (Download the report here [PDF]). (Above: Mrs. Obama during her remarks)
The First Lady's Field Force
The YMCA mission was also an opportunity for Mrs. Obama to meet with those who will become foot soldiers in the First Lady's Field Force. The audience of about fifty people included HHS staff, elected officials, scout masters from the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and leadership from the YMCA, the YWCA, the Children's' Defense Fund, Girls Inc., and the National PTA. Neil Nicoll, president and CEO of YMCA of the USA, introduced Mrs. Obama. Alexandria Mayor Bill Eullie and Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA) were also in attendance. Sec. Sebelius spoke, Dr. Palfrey spoke, and Dr. Benjamin spoke, and each discussed the many different approaches that are needed to combat child obesity, to create a broad campaign to encourage much more physical activity and better food choices, and healthier communities in general.
The approach includes making sure that all of America has a collective epiphany, according to Sec. Sebelius, to reduce the dramatic economic impact of chronic diet-related diseases such as diabetes and hypertension, as well as to achieve the kind of goals that ensure that the current level of child obesity is reduced. About 32 percent of children are overweight, with 17 percent of these obese, according to the most recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control. (Sec. Sebelius, above)
"If we're really serious about turning the corner on this issue we need everyone to be involved," Sec. Sebelius said. "We need to make this a national crisis and a national issue."
Pointing to rising health care costs as just one reason for the need for change, Sec. Sebelius also cited a higher calling, too. The Obama administration, she said, has a "moral obligation" to make America healthier. There was no mention of the health care reform battles currently being waged on Capitol Hill, however.
But Sec. Sebelius indicated that limiting the amount of junk food advertising aimed at children will be part of Mrs. Obama's campaign.
"Every eight minutes you have a junk food ad," Sec. Sebelius said, about children's television shows. "And now those ads have spread to video games and Web sites." Child advocates and public health researchers have long called for limiting junk food advertising to children, in schools, public health spaces, and on television.
More on the First Lady's campaign: Healthy schools, improved fresh food access, reducing food prices, increasing physical activity
While the full details of Mrs. Obama's emerging campaign have not yet been revealed, during her remarks she gave some more hints about what it will include. But first, she was introduced by Sec. Sebelius as "everyone's favorite vegetable gardener."
"The approach has to be ambitious...it's got to be something meaningful and powerful," Mrs. Obama said of her campaign, though she also noted that simply making small changes in eating can create a big difference in health: Drinking water instead of juice, eating more fruits and vegetables. As she did when speaking to the US Conference of Mayors last week, Mrs. Obama noted that her campaign will include as many moving parts as possible.
"We're going to be bringing the federal government together, those resources in partnerships with business, non-profit and the foundation communities, all of whom are thrilled to be a part of this endeavor," Mrs. Obama said.
She's made the campaign highly personal, too. During her remarks, Mrs. Obama noted that her own girls were at risk for being overweight, until a heads-up from the family pediatrician made her see the light, and change her ideas about food. Her pediatrician, Mrs. Obama noted, was well aware of health trends in African American communities, in which there's a higher risk for obesity and diet-related disease. Mrs. Obama told her story to highlight the fact that parents are ultimately responsible for their children's health--but they need help. From schools, public health officials, and their communities. Especially schools.
"We want to create what we're calling more healthy schools," Mrs. Obama said. "And these are schools that are offering more nutritious meal options during the day. They're providing nutritional information to children as part of the curriculum, and they're ensuring that children are getting the increased exercise that we know that they need."
An intense focus on changing school environments is vitally important, because that's where children spend most of their time--and, as Mrs. Obama noted during her remarks at the Healthy Kids Fair at the White House, last October--what goes on in schools often trumps parents' best efforts to manage their children's health. If schools are eliminating PE and serving processed foods with low nutritional value, parental efforts go out the window. Schools need to be safe havens for health, and promote best practices in both food and fitness, or Mrs. Obama's campaign has no chance for large-scale success.
Mrs. Obama and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack are seeking dramatic changes in the kind of foods offered in the federally funded school lunch program, which is due for congressional reauthorization sometime soon. More fresh fruits and vegetables, smaller portion sizes, low fat dairy products, and more whole grains in meals are among the changes that are being sought.
The First Lady added that increasing the amount of exercise kids get outside of school is critical for her campaign to succeed, too. She noted that "the work of children is play," and added that they should get as much play time as possible. She pointed out that the Alexandria Y is a perfect example of what every community needs; it has a super modern playroom, in which video screens are present--but the games are highly physical and include things like electronic bicycles and dance pads. She also spoke about limiting sedentary media screen time--TV and computer and electronic games for children, a subject both she and the President have frequently advocated in public, and which Dr. Benjamin includes as a recommendation in her report. By now, much of the nation knows that the Obama girls don't watch TV during the week, and only get two hours on weekends. But that's been critical for their health, Mrs. Obama said.
Mrs. Obama said that food access and the affordability of foods will receive much attention in her new campaign.
"We need to make healthy food options more affordable and accessible...and we need to do this in all communities: Urban, rural, everywhere," Mrs. Obama said. "People have to have the information, they have to have access in order to make healthy choices. There is nothing that will frustrate a parent more than to say that you've got to buy more fruits and vegetables -- but to still see the cost out of kilter and see those goals out of reach."
On the homefront, last year, Mrs. Obama's staff helped get the ball rolling for the Farmers Market by the White House, in an effort to increase access to fresh food in downtown Washington. It ran for six weeks, and was a big success.
Mrs. Obama added that improving food access and affordability will be "the toughest" part of her campaign. And she was also quick to say that changing the national foodscape, and halting the epidemic of child obesity, in general, is going to be difficult.
"This will not be easy and it won't happen overnight," Mrs. Obama said, and that's something she said at the mayor's conference, too. "And it won't happen simply because the First Lady has made it her priority. That in and of itself is not going to be enough. It's going to take all of us--parents, schools, communities--working together for a very long time, over a sustained period of time." Dr. Benjamin lays out the need for full involvement in her new report, too.
Thus the partnerships Mrs. Obama is seeking, and her willingness to do things like show up at a Y and discuss her campaign with community leaders.
The First Lady laughed as she added "Thank God it's not going to be solely up to me."
But she ended on a positive note, saying that she's sure her allies are on board, and even though it will take a long time, her campaign will ultimately succeed.
"I have every confidence, based on the level of energy that I've seen, based on the willingness of people to deal with this issue across party lines, the willingness of the business community to be a part of the solution," Mrs. Obama said. "Every sign that we've seen over the course of moving to this rollout has been nothing but positive."
And there was a little bit of State of the Union afterglow at the event, too: Virginia First Lady Maureen McDonnell was at the Y to greet Mrs. Obama, and she's the wife of Governor Bob McDonnell, the fellow who gave the blasting GOP rebuttal to the President's speech. But there were no hard feelings. According to a White House aide, the YMCA event was intended to showcase both the need for and potential for bipartisan teamwork to combat child obesity.
Related: A White House video of the entire mini-summit is here. The full transcript of the First Lady's remarks is here. President Obama lauds Mrs. Obama's campaign. Read about Dr. Benjamin's report here. Mrs. Obama's address to the US Conference of Mayors is here. A post about the Healthy Kids Fair at the White House is here. The Surgeon General's website is here. The HHS website is here. *AP photos.