First Lady says childhood obesity is a crisis equivalent to HIV/AIDS, youth violence, under-achieving schools
Kansas City, MO: After more than a year of unprecedented activity that has shifted the national conversation about food, First Lady Michelle Obama made even more history on Monday morning, when she spoke at the 101st NAACP National Convention. It was Mrs. Obama's longest speech about Let's Move! to date, to her biggest and perhaps most critical audience.
More than 4,000 delegates and attendees listened as Mrs. Obama described childhood obesity as a racial issue that overwhelmingly effects African Americans, and which requires the immediate attention of the nation's oldest civil rights organization. Changing the health status of children in the African American community is critical to continuing the work of the organization, Mrs. Obama said, as she called for a new version of the idea of food justice.
There was a tent revival feeling in Bartle Hall, the centerpiece of the very contemporary metal and glass downtown convention center, as the excited crowd waited for Mrs. Obama. Women were dressed in heels and fancy dresses (and many hats were spotted); men were in snazzy summer suits, or traditional Southern summer wear--seersucker and white linen. Many delegates were dressed as teams, in brightly colored state NAACP gear, too. President Obama spoke to the NAACP at its centennial convention last year in New York, and rumors were flying that he would join Mrs. Obama in Kansas City. He did not.
There were plenty of children and the elderly--and just like at a day-long revival, many from these groups were napping in the folding chairs, as activity and noise swirled around them. An organist played punctuations and flourishes for the many people who preceded Mrs. Obama to the podium, as the NAACP conducted a series of votes, and other speakers gave their messages. Actor and AIDS activist Blair Underwood gave an impassioned call for action--HIV/AIDS, like obesity, is also disproportionately high in the African American community. When no one was on stage, spirituals throbbed over the sound system. The crowd often sang along, their voices rising to the exposed steel beams above.
The legacy of slavery
Mrs. Obama, clad in a polka dot dress and green kitten heels, received a huge ovation as she walked on to the dramatically lit and flag-loaded stage. The crowd rose to its feet, including some high profile attendees in the front row: Julian Bond, Blair Underwood, and Louis Gossett, Jr, local politicos and officials. NAACP president and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous watched Mrs. Obama with a sleeping child in his arms.
When NAACP Chair Roslyn Brock introduced the First Lady, she pointed out that Mrs. Obama is a descendant of slaves, who now lives in a house built by slaves, and that she is served by the--in theory--descendants of her former white masters. The crowd cheered wildly.
Mrs. Obama picked up far more lightly on that theme, noting that for more than a century, the NAACP has fought and lobbied against unjust laws--risking "life and limb"-- to ensure equal rights and access for African Americans, everywhere from lunch counters to battlefields and hospitals and universities to the Supreme Court.
"Even the White House," Mrs. Obama said. "I know that I stand here today, and I know that my husband stands where he is today, because of this organization and because of the struggles and the sacrifices of all those who came before us."
She urged the group to take on childhood obesity with the same passion it has brought to altering the racially biased fabric of American society. As she pointed out that African American children are "significantly more likely to be obese than white children, and that about half will develop diabetes in their lifetimes," Mrs. Obama noted a brutal irony.
"We are living today in a time where we’re decades beyond slavery, we are decades beyond Jim Crow," Mrs. Obama said. "When one of the greatest risks to our children’s future is their own health."
"Surely the men and women of the NAACP haven’t spent a century organizing and advocating and working day and night only to raise the first generation in history that might be on track to live shorter lives than their parents," Mrs. Obama added, to huge applause. "If we don’t do something to reverse this trend right now, our kids won’t be in any shape to continue the work begun by the founders of this great organization."
She called for NAACP to give childhood obesity crisis-level status, alongside other challenges facing the African American community.
"We need to take this issue seriously, as seriously as improving under-achieving schools, as seriously as eliminating youth violence or stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS or any of the other issues that we know are devastating our communities," Mrs. Obama said.
"Now is not the time to rest on our laurels," Mrs. Obama said, as she pointed out that "stubborn inequalities still persist -- in education and health, in income and wealth."
Mrs. Obama said that she was speaking not just as First lady, but "as a mother who believes that we owe it to our kids to prepare them for the challenges that we know lie ahead," as she began to explain the Let's Move! campaign to the crowd. She detailed, as she usually does when describing the massive initiative, the pillars it is founded upon: Making healthier foods more affordable and accessible by working to eliminate food deserts in seven years; improving schools meal programs through legislation; boosting physical activity through PE and creating safe communities that are walkable; reducing screen time; giving parents information and tools to help kids be healthy. (Above: A long view of the convention hall)
The First Lady's talking points were greeted with "yes ma'ams!" and "mmm hmms!" and laughter and applause--and even calls of "Amen!"
As she urged the NAACP membership to make personal changes and to think about portion control, eliminating soda and sugary beverages, eschew dessert, and start exercising--as well as work in their own communities to make changes, too--Mrs. Obama admitted that what she is proposing sounds not only daunting, but goes against cultural food traditions, too.
"Look, no one wants to give up Sunday meal. No one wants to say goodbye to mac and cheese and fried chicken and mashed potatoes -- oh, I’m getting hungry--forever," Mrs. Obama, said to laughter. "No one wants to do that. Not even the Obamas, trust me."
But things have got to change, Mrs. Obama said. She added "Don't shoot me."
She even threw in a little joke about food and civil rights. In the Obama household, the First Lady said, "dessert is not a right." That got more shouts of "Amen!" from the crowd, as did the observation that in Marian Robinson's household, you ate what was put in front of you, or you didn't eat at all.
White House assistant chef Sam Kass got special notice, as Mrs. Obama noted that the Let's Move! campaign now has a special video series, Let's Cook, featuring the House chefs and guest chefs demonstrating how easy it is to make healthy, delicious and affordable family meals. Mrs. Obama told the crowd that the first Let's Cook video stars Marvin Woods of Atlanta, an African American chef who specializes in Low Country and African cuisine varieties. It seems no accident that Woods was the chef chosen to be in the debut video for the series--which launched just hours before Mrs. Obama spoke.
"This is a great series featuring Sam Kass, who a lot of people think is cute -- I don’t know if that helps," Mrs. Obama joked.
It was one joke that didn't play well; few people seemed to know who either Kass or Woods are. When Mrs. Obama wants to make a truly attention grabbing statement with cooking, she will star in one of the videos herself. The First Lady is credited with a mass revival in home gardening because she has been frequently photographed, dirty-kneed and sweating, in her South Lawn Kitchen Garden. The kitchen equivalent might be what it takes to truly get people interested in cooking again.
Mrs. Obama also urged the crowd to be role models for their kids, by eating healthy food and exercising, as she noted the dramatic uptick children have for being at risk for obesity if one or both parents are obese--40 percent for one parent, 80 percent for both parents, Mrs. Obama said, adding "if you can believe it."
"The fact is, we all know we are our children’s first and best teachers and role models. Shoot, I can’t tell Malia and Sasha to eat their vegetables if I’m sitting around eating French fries -- trust me, they will not let that happen," Mrs. Obama said. "And I can’t tell them to go run around outside if I’m spending all my free time on the couch watching TV."
Most people are aware that the skip roping and hula hooping First Lady is not a couch potato. And the White House has worked exhaustively to bring in African American athletes to support the Let's Move campaign; gymnast Dominique Dawes is now co-chair of the President's Council on Fitness, Nutrition and Sports, alongside Super Bowl champion Drew Brees. This week at the White House, tennis champion Serena Williams will play tennis on the South Lawn with Mrs. Obama and a group of DC kids.
Mrs. Obama closed by urging the crowd to use the same determined, step-by-step approach that garnered huge advances in desegregating America to combat childhood obesity: One lunch counter seat, one boycott, one small victory at a time. NAACP, she reminded, has always been an organization devoted to making sure that the next generation is able to live by the founding principles of America.
"It is why so many men and women -- legends and icons and ordinary folks -- have faced down their doubts, their cynicism and their fears, and they’ve taken that walk that counts, " Mrs. Obama said, as she likened her childhood obesity campaign to getting out the vote, to Brown v. Board of Education, to Daisy Bates and the Arkansas Nine.
Combating childhood obesity is, quite literally, the walk that now counts for work on social justice issues.
"So I’m asking you, NAACP, will you move with me?" Mrs. Obama said. "I’m going to need you, NAACP. The struggle continues."
Mrs. Obama left the stage, waving to a standing ovation, just as she had entered. There was no shaking hands across a rope line: The meets 'n greets had occurred before Mrs. Obama made her speech--because she had a plane to catch for Florida, for another historic first: Visiting the Gulf Coast oil spill region. (Above: L, Julian Bond; 2nd from R Blair Underwood, and Lou Gossett, Jr applaud Mrs. Obama)
National Association For the Advancement of Cola Products
The crowd had one option for exiting the meeting hall, and this was directly into an outer foyer where corporate sponsors for the convention had booths set up. In the center was a huge soda fountain counter, courtesy of Coca Cola. Employees handed out cups of free soda and sugary beverages, and big bags of branded Coke swag. The official tote bag for the NAACP convention carries Coke's logo on it, too. The irony of it seemed lost on no one, following Mrs. Obama's speech.
"Let's Move and get us some coke," a large fellow, clad in a convention souvenir shirt, announced loudly to the crowd around himself, which caused roars of laughter.
"And don't tell Michelle," another attendee shot back, to more laughter.
Yes, the struggle continues. (Above: NAACP Coke)
The Fat Rights movement and fat discrimination
It should be noted that there have been a number of studies that show that weight bias is as prevalent as racial discrimination, and that obese and overweight people are overwhelmingly discriminated against in American culture, no matter what their gender or race (here's a study from Yale's Rudd Center For Food Policy & Obesity; executive director Kelly Brownell has been an adviser for the Let's Move! campaign).
But the rights of those who are obese garner national attention primarily when a high-profile overweight or obese person protests what is perceived as fat-biased discrimination, as film director Kevin Smith did when he was kicked off a Southwest Airlines flight last February, because the flight crew deemed him to large to fit in his seat. But even before Mrs. Obama launched Let's Move! last February, Fat Rights activists worried publicly that the campaign would bring on a new era of fat bias. The National Association To Advance Fat Acceptance, a group that believes people can be healthy at any size, felt it necessary to publish an open letter to Mrs. Obama, calling on her to change her campaign.
None of this entered Mrs. Obama's conversation with the membership of the NAACP. She was there with a far different message.
*The full transcript of Mrs. Obama's remarks is here.
*Photos by Obama Foodorama