Thursday, February 18, 2010

Let's Move Hits The Road: Michelle Obama Brings Child Obesity Campaign To Philadelphia

A focus on urban food access, with Philadelphia as a model for excellent projects...and problems
At the jam-packed launch event for Let's Move held last week at the White House, one of the most ambitious goals announced by First Lady Michelle Obama as part of her broad campaign to end child obesity was a pledge to eliminate US food deserts within seven years. That's a tall order, and on Friday, this part of the program begins in earnest, when Mrs. Obama takes Let's Move to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, joined by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.

According to the East Wing, Mrs. Obama and the Secretaries will tour the City of Brotherly Love to showcase the widespread problem of food deserts, and the steps Philadelphia has taken to make healthy, affordable food more available to citizens. Philadelphia has many pockets of what the White House defines as food deserts--places where healthy food is either unavailable and/or very expensive--but the city also has a number of innovative programs designed to combat the problem. The trip includes an event at the Fairhill Elementary School. (Above: Mrs. Obama at the launch of Let's Move)

Eliminating food deserts and making healthy food both accessible and affordable is one of the pillars of Let's Move, and Mrs. Obama may well be the only first lady to ever incorporate the term "food desert" into her daily vocabulary. In her public remarks, she's frequently mentioned the need for changes in America's food environment--in both urban and rural areas--as a key component for reducing child obesity, which the CDC currently estimates at about 17 percent. According to Mrs. Obama, 23.5 million Americans live in food deserts, and 6.5 million of these are children.

At the Let's Move launch, Mrs. Obama noted that it's unrealistic to expect even the most well-meaning parents to serve their children healthier meals if they live in food deserts.

"With the price of fresh fruits and vegetables rising 50 percent higher than overall food costs these past two decades, they [parents] don’t have the money," Mrs. Obama said. "Or they don’t have a supermarket in their community, so their best option for dinner is something from the shelf of the local convenience store or gas station."

Eliminating food deserts is such an important part of Let's Move that one of the information tools created especially for the campaign is a special Food Environment Atlas from USDA, which graphically illustrates obesity rates, number of supermarkets and farmers markets, rates of poverty, etc, for every state in America, down to the county level. The Philadelphia county statistics from the new atlas (which include the city of Philadelphia) indicate that everything Mrs. Obama says about convenience store shopping is true. (A detail from the atlas, showing fast food outlets per capita)

In Philadelphia, there's a reliance on convenience stores in many neighborhoods, and the foods available are very cheap, and tend to be unhealthy. Although there are 456 grocery stores, more than fifty-six percent of the population lives more than a mile from a grocery store, with no access to a car; thus the need for food shopping at the local convenience store--and there are 339 of these. For food intake, this translates to an average per capita annual consumption of sweetened beverages at 56 gallons, and average food consumption of sweetened snacks at 136 pounds (both above the national average). To further skew the local food environment toward unhealthy foods, Philadelphia county has just 13 farmers markets, and 1,144 fast food restaurants. 29.1 percent of adults are identified as obese, with a low-income preschool obesity rate of 8.4 percent.

How is Philadelphia eliminating food deserts? How will Let's Move eliminate food deserts?
In Pennsylvania, the Fresh Food Financing Initiative (FFFI) is a state-wide program that combines public and private money to finance supermarkets that plan to operate in under served communities. Founded in 2004, the FFFI has expanded access to healthy food for 400,000 state residents, as well as created nearly 5,000 jobs. The FFFI has long been on White House radar; at President Obama's State of the Union address, among Mrs. Obama's twenty-three special guests was Jeffrey Brown, a grocer who has been very active with the FFFI. He's opened four supermarkets in low income neighborhoods in Philadelphia, and White House officials visited his markets last summer to discuss his work.

Included in the wide-ranging series of commitments and projects that form Let's Move is a national version of the program, the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, which is described as a partnership between private groups and the Departments of Treasury, Agriculture and Health and Human Services, which will invest $400 million a year to "help bring grocery stores to underserved areas and help places such as convenience stores and bodegas carry healthier food options." Thus Sec. Vilsack and Sec. Geithner joining Mrs. Obama for the trip to Philadelphia; the Healthy Food Financing Initiative is in their portfolios, too. And more than just getting healthy foods into markets, the Healthy Food Financing Initiative is being looked upon as a swell way to create jobs, too.

Also included in Let's Move is a $5 million investment in the Farmers Market Promotion Program at USDA, which provides grants to establish, and improve access to farmers markets, which are another way to combat food deserts. Mrs. Obama started the Farmers Market by the White House to help draw attention to the need for more farmers markets across the country, and USDA's Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program is designed to support farmers markets, as well as local food sheds, too. There will be other projects to improve food access, too; recently, Sec. Vilsack announced that USDA Rural Development aid that went toward convenience stores and similar businesses in rural areas under the Bush administration are now being shifted to to investments in food processing, cold storage and farmer’s markets to help build the local foods economy. But eliminating food deserts in just seven years will require far more than building supermarkets and creating more farmers markets. Like child obesity itself, food deserts are also an issue that have a number of overlapping and interconnected origins. There's no one solution, and urban and rural food deserts require different interventions.

Funding is dependent on Congressional action
But here's the problem for both the Healthy Food Financing Initiative and the Farmers Market funding as part of Let's Move: The monetary allotments are dependent on the passage of President Obama's Fiscal Year 2011 budget. And that's currently up in the air, subject to Congressional action. If neither program is funded, that could have a big impact on the goal of eliminating food deserts in seven years. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) are spearheading the effort in the Senate. But Mrs. Obama's Philadelphia trip is just one more way of showing Congress how important funding programs to change food access really is. The trip will get massive media coverage, of course. It's not that often that Mrs. Obama hits the road without President Obama. Congress will pay attention. While in Philadelphia, Mrs. Obama will also be taping an interview with Fox News channel's Mike Huckabee, for his self-monikered show, and they'll be discussing Let's Move. Huckabee's a Republican, and supports Mrs. Obama's campaign. That's a good message for Congress, too.

Another way Philadelphia has worked to combat food deserts is the "Healthy Corner Store Initiative," run by the non-profit The Food Trust (which also works on the FFFI). The project seeks to get much healthier food choices into those heavily trafficked corner stores where so much food shopping occurs--and the group also runs a program in local schools that educates kids about healthier food options. Because it's not just parents who are doing the convenience-store purchasing of foods with low nutritional value in Philadelphia.

A study conducted by Temple University and The Food Trust and published in the journal Pediatrics in October of 2009 tracked the food shopping habits of kids attending public schools in Philadelphia, and found that more than 53 percent of students in grades 4-6 reported shopping at corner stores once daily, five days per week (with more than a third stopping in twice a day, too). On average, the kids spent just a little more than a dollar during their visits to corner stores--but that dollar purchased about 365 empty calories, in the form of sugar sweetened beverages, candy, or chips. That's enough to significantly amp up any child's risk for obesity. The Food Trust also determined that there are even to eight corner convenience stores within three to four blocks of most Philadelphia schools.

Part of the "Healthy Corner Store Initiative" is an educational component that teaches kids about healthier food choices, with the goal of cutting about 200 calories from the daily snack intake. The program also includes a "Corner Store Network;" member stores are eligible to receive refrigeration units to display fresh fruit salads and more shelving for healthy snacks. A website for the project includes maps of five Philadelphia schools and the nearby stores that sell healthy snacks. It's a very good attempt at reducing child obesity from both the supply side and the demand side, something that must be addressed, and the kind of local, on-the-ground program that's crucial for the success of Let's Move. Because even if there's improved food access, kids have got to want to eat healthier foods.

And then there's school lunch programs...
Lastly, there's one more good reason Philadelphia warrants Mrs. Obama's first Let's Move visit: Aramark, a major food corporation that provides more than 300 million school lunches annually in about 500 school districts nationwide, is headquartered in Philadelphia. For the launch of Let's Move, Mrs. Obama received commitments from Aramark and two other major school food suppliers to change their foods to far healthier options, and bring these into alignment with best-practice nutrition standards. Changing school lunch programs is another way of significantly reducing child obesity, and Aramark has pledged to gradually decrease sugar, fat and salt in school lunch meals; increase whole grains; and double the fresh produce in the school meals that are served.

Changing the federal school food standards is another pillar of Let's Move; with 31 million kids participating in school nutrition programs, it's regarded as a major child population that can be offered healthier food options, as one more wing of the all-out assault on child obesity. Philadelphia's federally funded school lunch program also has what is referred to as universal access; in schools where more than a certain percentage of families live in poverty, all children are automatically enrolled in the school nutrition program. Getting more schools districts to use universal access is yet another goal of Let's Move, because it eliminates bureaucratic red tape and ensures that all children who need federal nutrition programs are able to get it. Universal access also tends to lower expenses spent on processing school lunch applications--and thus is actually a financially savvy device. One place Philadelphia needs help is right there in the school lunch program, however: There's only one farm to school program available, according to the Food Environment Atlas. Farm to school sourcing is yet another way to combat food deserts, and child obesity.

Let's Move is a big project, and it will be a long campaign. The Philadelphia trip is just the beginning--and no doubt there will be surprises on the visit, too.

Related: The Let's Move website and a video of Mrs. Obama introducing the campaign is here. A transcript of the First Lady's remarks at the launch of Let's Move is here; a video is here. President Obama's memo creating a child obesity task force is here. A post on the Oval Office signing ceremony for the memorandum is here. A post about USDA Food Environment Atlas is here.