Halting childhood obesity requires a bipartisan effort at every level, First Lady says. Making schools healthier, making healthy food affordable, better food labeling, and community action are all necessary...
On the anniversary of her first year in Washington, First Lady Michelle Obama asked America's mayors to join her in a campaign she hopes will be her legacy after she leaves the White House: Reducing the dramatic rate of childhood obesity. The mayors are in DC for the winter meeting of the United States Conference of Mayors, and Mrs. Obama had a receptive audience as she described the grim physical and emotional toll of obesity on America's children, and discussed the economic impact for families as well as communities.
Obesity rates for adults and children are at an all-time high across the country, and "the deck is stacked" against even the most well-meaning parents, Mrs. Obama said. She said that medical experts' estimates that nearly fifty percent of Americans could be obese in ten years never fails to "take her breath away."
The First Lady didn't explain her upcoming campaign to reduce obesity in deep detail--aides say that will come next month--but she said it includes "commonsense, innovative solutions that empower families and communities to make healthy decisions for their kids." Better school policies, including improving school lunch programs and encouraging phys ed, and fostering much-needed changes in community food access, so healthy foods are more affordable and more easily available, are among her goals.
The First Lady made her remarks at the Capital Hilton in Washington, which is about two blocks from the location of one of her signature healthy food projects for 2009, the White House Farmers Market. More farmers markets in communities are part of her plan, too. (Above: Mrs. Obama with Burnsville, Minn Mayor Elizabeth Kautz, president of the mayor's organization; Trenton, N.J. Mayor Douglas Palmer and Energy Secretary Steven Chu)
Scientists haven't been able to agree on any single reason for the high prevalence of obesity in children and adults--whether it's too little activity, too many calories, a disease, environmental toxins, food additives--but Mrs. Obama said that children are getting fatter due to a particularly modern combination of cheap processed food, too much TV and computer time, and a lack of parental attention.
"With all the changes we’ve seen in our society--families having less time together, kids having fewer opportunities to be physically active, the rise of fast food--it’s no wonder that childhood obesity has tripled over the past thirty years," Mrs. Obama noted.
Mrs. Obama understands the attractiveness of convenience foods for tired working parents, and counts herself among the guilty. As she's done in other public remarks about food, the First Lady recalled the time before she was in the White House, when she was dealing with a full time job and child rearing simultaneously, and often relied on less healthy options for meals.
"There were plenty of times...that I just ordered that pizza, because it was easier," Mrs. Obama said. "Or we went to the drive-thru for burgers, because it was quick and cheap. And I wasn’t always aware of how all the calories and fat in some of the processed foods I was buying were adding up."
The First Lady pointed out an issue that's been an important topic of conversation among food advocates for years: Accurate labeling, posting calorie counts on menus, transparency in food.
"Sometimes, parents just don’t have the information they need to make decisions they feel good about," Mrs. Obama said. "They’re inundated with news reports filled with conflicting information, and with food labels filled with ingredients they can’t even pronounce, let alone know whether those ingredients are healthy."
Parents need help, Mrs. Obama said. Better labeling and information about food must be available. But that help can't just be from Washington. Because they're on the front lines in communities, Mrs. Obama said, the nation's mayors need to lead by personal example to combat the national health crisis, as well as by enacting policy...and everyone needs to have the same goal.
"It’s going to take all of us--businesses and non-profits; community centers and health centers; teachers and faith leaders; coaches and parents; and particularly all of you, our nation’s mayors--all working together to help families make commonsense changes so our kids can get, and stay, healthy," Mrs. Obama said, which hints at the broadness of her upcoming campaign.
And Mrs. Obama admitted that combating childhood obesity will not be an easy or fast project, but it can be done.
"Make no mistake about it, this problem can be solved," Mrs. Obama told the mayors. "We don’t need to wait for some new invention or discovery to make this happen. This doesn’t require fancy tools or technologies. We have everything thing we need right now...The only question is whether we have the will."
"Are we willing to work across party lines to give our kids a healthy future? Are we willing to change our own habits as we work to change theirs? Are we willing to make every decision about our schools, communities, and cities with the health and well-being of our children in mind? In the end, are we willing to put our kids first?"
Mrs. Obama noted that during tough economic times, "courage and foresight" are needed to make the right decisions and develop strategies, because when budgets are in dire shape, spending money in schools and communities for healthier foods and recreational spaces seems low on the list of community priorities.
"Folks like you know that leadership is about having the foresight--and the courage--to make those sacrifices and investments in the short run that pay big dividends--often paying for themselves many times over--in the long run," Mrs. Obama said. "And that is precisely what happens when we undertake smart, strategic efforts to help our kids lead active, healthy lives right from the beginning."
Mrs. Obama challenged the mayors to join her campaign.
"Are we willing to make every decision about our schools, communities, and cities with the health and well-being of our children in mind?" Mrs. Obama asked. "In the end, are we willing to put our kids first?"
The First Lady lauded mayors who are doing good work on health initiatives in their own communities, including starting farmers markets, creating space for physical activity, and encouraging their entire towns to go on diets. Those are the kind of solutions that are needed, she said. As she finished her remarks, the First Lady was met with huge applause. The mayors gathered in DC, at least, seem to be willing to get on board with Mrs. Obama's campaign.
Related: The transcript of the First Lady's remarks are here.