Thursday, March 18, 2010

First Lady Michelle Obama, In Defense of Twinkies At The Newsweek Forum

Bipartisan foodism: Mrs. Obama likens her campaign to wearing seat belts, reassures that Twinkies will not be regulated, seeks to inspire the world
This week marks the one year anniversary of the groundbreaking for the White House Kitchen Garden, which was the start of First Lady Michelle Obama's health and nutrition campaign. Since then, she's been promoting a whole agenda of healthy food initiatives, with a major focus on fruit and vegetables. Her food rules have been clear, and accessible. Eat less, eat fresh and local, occasionally enjoy some treats.

But on Wednesday, there was another signal moment in American food politics, when Mrs. Obama announced that "a Twinkie is not a cigarette," and made a rational case for including the popular snack food in children's diets, without a warning label. Mrs. Obama also floated the proposition that healthy food is a tool of international diplomacy, and posited that the cultural shift inspired by her healthy food campaign will forever change history.

The pronouncements came during a wide ranging Q & A about her child obesity campaign with Newsweek editor Jon Meacham, held at the Newseum in Washington, with about 120 guests in attendance. Mrs. Obama also discussed food regulation, soda taxes, school lunches, the inspiration for Let's Move!, and how she'll measure its success. Mrs. Obama is Newsweek's cover story this week, which has been a busy one. On Tuesday, in a speech to the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), Mrs. Obama urged the corporate food giants to dramatically improve their offerings, and to stop using cartoon characters and celebs to market their unhealthy products to kids. (Above: Mrs. Obama and Meacham)

Hostess, the snack food giant that makes about 500 million Twinkies a year, uses celebs to market their products. They've also used animated characters to boost sales. Twinkies are made in Mrs. Obama's hometown, Chicago, which also has the highest annual per-capita consumption of the treat. Twinkies have something of a double life in American culture; they're equally lauded and derided. During President Obama's election campaign, they were used as a symbol of his inability to effectively govern. The followers of the "Twinkies for Obama" campaign mailed Twinkies to Transition headquarters.

Twinkies are safe in the Obama administration
At the GMA conference, Mrs. Obama called on the food giants to improve their labeling, and she did the same at the Newsweek forum, using the Twinkie as a model.

"What parents need is just information about what's in the Twinkie and how much of this we can eat," Mrs. Obama said. "You read labels now and it's like the small print and it's all "oleosutomay" -- or I don't -- the chemicals, you can't even pronounce them."

Some Twinkie ingredients: Sodium acid pyrophosphate, monocalcium phosphate, Sodium stearol lactylate. Twinkies contain high fructose corn syrup, and are loaded with sugar. A single Twinkie has 150 calories, with 40 from fat. Total fat is 4.5g, with saturated fat at 2.5g, and 27g of carbohydrate (10g sugar). There are 20 mg of cholesterol, and 220 mg of sodium.

Still, Twinkies do not need a warning label, Mrs. Obama said, nor do Fruit Loops, when Meacham asked if sugary foods should carry warning labels because they can lead to obesity.

"You know, that strikes me as extreme, because a Twinkie is not a cigarette, you know," Mrs. Obama said. "It's not that we can't have a Twinkie. Parents have to understand what's in the Twinkie...how does it fit into the overall diet."

"And our kids would be pretty upset," Mrs. Obama added, about a Twinkie ban. "And I am not supporting that."

"Twinkies are safe in the Obama administration?" Meacham asked the First Lady.

Mrs. Obama laughed, and agreed. "I feel good going on record," Mrs. Obama said.

Twinkies were safe in the Clinton administration, too. In 1999, President Bill Clinton famously added a Twinkie to the Millennium Time Capsule, calling it "an enduring American icon." Fried Twinkies are staples at America's state fairs, among other embroideries on Twinkie cuisine, which include Twinkie sushi and Twinkie wedding cakes. And of course, there's the legal slang in American case law, the Twinkie defense, which sprang up after San Francisco Superviser Dan White murdered fellow Superviser Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone in 1978. White never actually claimed that sugary junk foods caused him to commit murder, however, but that's another story. (Above: Mrs. Obama and Mr. Clinton watch the President give a speech in April, 2009)

Bipartisan foodism
Mr. Clinton has now gone on the record that his ongoing problems with heart disease are directly attributable to his unhealthy diet as a child. He's become an activist on child obesity issues, too, and supports Mrs. Obama's campaign. He might not promote Twinkie consumption, but Mrs. Obama is nothing if not bipartisan when it comes to food. Mrs. Obama has spent a year encouraging children to eat their vegetables, but she's not going to take their treats away. The First Lady has planted a White House Kitchen Garden, gotten a farmers market established right outside the White House gates, and is a big proponent of farm to school sourcing for improving school lunches, especially those under the rubric of the federal nutrition program.

Still, commodity foods--and snacks--have a critical place in her campaign, since these are what the majority of American citizens depend on. But these must be far more healthy, Mrs. Obama says, with less sugar, fat, and salt. Her approach has gained her overwhelming support from the Big Food companies; the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents about 300 corporations, including Kraft, Coca Cola, Cargill, ConAgra, and McDonalds, has pledged to join Let's Move!. Within hours of Mrs. Obama's speech to the GMA, Kraft announced that it was cutting sodium across its brand portfolio. Her campaign is carefully structured to include all producers in the foodchain, which is why Twinkies have her vote of confidence. She's looking at the broad picture. The First Lady also has the support of many Republicans, most notably Missisipi Governor Haley Barbour, who is featured in a White House Let's Move! video, and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who welcomed the First Lady on his Fox News show, and gave his unbridled support to the campaign. It's a politically bipartisan campaign, as wells as bipartisan foodism.

A cultural shift
During the Newsweek Q & A, Mrs. Obama compared Let's Move! to the campaign to get people to wear seatbelts. It took a change in public consciousness to get people to realize they needed to use seatbelts, she said, and it couldn't be legislated. The same is now true for eating healthy food.

"You can’t tell people what to do in their own homes, and nor should you," Mrs. Obama said. "But there comes a point when we start seeing enough statistics, we sort of get aware of the problems in our own homes, and we start -- we get emotionally ready to make some of those changes."

Interestingly, only seven US states don't have seatbelt laws now. 43 states require seatbelts for children under eighteen; six mandate seatbelt use for both children and adults.

America is "absolutely ready" for her healthy food campaign, Mrs. Obama said. Without lesgislation.

"The role of government is not to mandate...I think at the federal level, at this level, we can highlight and inform," Mrs. Obama said. She noted that leveraging federal money for her project, and working with FDA on labeling is an example of this. As is getting the Child Nutrition Act reuthorized with better standards and more money.

"But I think the real work happens on the ground," Mrs. Obama said. "It’s our governors, our mayors, our schools, our communities. "You can go into many states and see some wonderful examples of things that work in those communities, because there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer."

Running the numbers is for the history books
Meacham's final question for Mrs. Obama was a nod to the future, and to measuring the hard outcomes of the project the First Lady has said she hopes will be the legacy she leaves after her White House years are over.

"How will you measure success, as you look at the lifetime of the administration, of your own ongoing work, presumably?" Meacham asked.

The measure of the campaign's worth will be written in history, Mrs. Obama responded.

"Our view is that we want kids born today to grow up at a healthy weight. And it will take a generation to see how that’s going," Mrs. Obama said.

"We are looking at this as a forever proposition," she added.

Mrs. Obama declined to discuss numbers and percentages for obesity reduction, instead pointing out that kids are the population that is most open to change.

The First Lady also ventured into statesmanship. At a time when partisan politics are much in play in the political sphere, she maintains, healthy food can be common ground.

"This is an issue that can unite the country," Mrs. Obama said. And then she expanded her reach.

"It can unite us with the rest of the world," Mrs. Obama said. "This is an issue for the world. And we can truly be a leader."

The State Department certainly agrees about food as a uniting element. Under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's guidance, State is prosecuting an aggressive food security policy around the globe right now, working in concert with USDA and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. The two departments are engaged in a joint project to re-localize food sourcing, boost agricultural stability and outputs, and get what they believe is healthy food into the hands of the potentially rioting masses.

When the masses are not rioting, they have been seeing their obesity rates rise right along with America's, too, Mrs. Obama said.

"The truth is there isn’t a single head of state or spouse of a head of state who I have met who has not been fascinated by our garden and our conversations around nutrition, because so many other countries are beginning to see some of the effects as they develop," Mrs. Obama said.

The First Lady is nothing if not a visionary. Tomorrow, in an event with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, Mrs. Obama will announce announce prevention and wellness grant awards to communities across the country. The event will be webcast at www.hhs.gov/recovery.

Related: A transcript of Mrs. Obama's Q & A, and a White House video of the session, are here. A list of Mrs. Obama's Food Rules, pre-Let's Move! is here.

*Getty photos