Thursday, July 08, 2010

Michelle Obama's Foodie Visit To The Treasury

During twentieth agency visit, First Lady talks food access, food deserts, and Let's Move!
First Lady Michelle O
bama's Let's Move! campaign to end childhood obesity has projects and components located in at least twelve different federal agencies, a testimony to its reach and importance to the Obama administration.

When she visited the Treasury Department on Wednesday, Mrs. Obama praised staffers as she explained the agency's critical role in the Let's Move! campaign.

"One of the pillars of the program is to eliminate what we call “food deserts,” Mrs. Obama told about 200 employees gathered in the Department's ornate, gilt-edged auditorium, who greeted her with cheers and applause as she stood at the podium with Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner (above). "And these are areas throughout the country where people don’t have access to fresh produce because they don’t have grocery stores."

"Here at Treasury, you’re playing an incredibly important role in addressing this important challenge," Mrs. Obama said, noting that millions of Americans live in food deserts. "In the 2011 budget, this department has proposed to devote $250 million in New Markets Tax Credits and $25 million in grants to provide a powerful incentive for investors to take a chance on projects like grocery stores in underserved communities."

She was referring to the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI), which will combine public and private funding to build supermarkets in food deserts.

Despite a record-breaking heat wave in Washington, Mrs. Obama had walked the short distance from the White House to the Treasury, to make her twentieth agency "thank you" visit.

"I don’t get to walk much outside of the gate," Mrs. Obama said. "It was a thrill."

Staffers were equally thrilled by the First Lady's visit. They'd been asked not to raise their phone cams to photograph Mrs. Obama as she spoke--it would interrupt the video cameras filming from the back of the crowd--but few could resist. They stood and listened quietly as Mrs. Obama described the February trip she'd taken with Sec. Geithner to Philadelphia, to launch the HFFI.

It was the first road trip for the Let's Move! campaign, and Mrs. Obama, Sec. Geithner, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack visited The Fresh Grocer, a $15 million, 46,000 square foot supermarket that was built using Pennsylvania's Fresh Food Financing Initiative, which is the model for the HFFI. Mrs. Obama caused screams of delight from surprised shoppers as she toured the market (above).

The Fresh Grocer is located in a neighborhood that has a high rate of poverty, and Mrs. Obama told the Treasury staffers about the dramatic impact the market has had on the community, in addition to erasing its status as a food desert.

"It was a place where, if you can believe it, they didn’t have a viable grocery store in their area for more than a decade -- more than 10 years," Mrs. Obama said. "So that meant that families trying to nourish their children had to rely on fast food and convenience stores."

That all changed, thanks to tax credits, Mrs. Obama noted.

"It’s a beautiful grocery store...that one little store not only has made it easier for parents to put healthy food on the table for their kids, but it’s been a tremendous economic growth opportunity. It’s created tons of jobs in that area," Mrs. Obama said.

"We were so mesmerized by the produce section that Secretary Geithner got on the phone, called his wife and asked if he could bring something home," Mrs. Obama added, to much laughter. "And he did." (Above: Sec. Geithner at Fresh Grocer, mesmerized...)

Mrs. Obama turned to Sec. Geithner. "What did you get? You got green onions and --"

"Something healthy," Sec. Geithner said, in a tone of voice that indicated that perhaps his purchase had been less than healthy.

"It was very healthy," Mrs. Obama said, to more laughter, and added that Sec. Geithner had also purchased a fruit smoothie.

Mrs. Obama also explained that the benefits of The Fresh Grocer go beyond just improving food access.

"That single grocery store in that community has instilled a great sense of pride in that small Philadelphia community -- providing both stability and sustenance," Mrs. Obama said. "It was even able to operate during one of the worst snowstorms that the city experienced this winter because all the employees were determined to show up. They live in the community and they wanted to make sure that that store was open and available for the community."

"In the end, that’s really the sense of responsibility that also defines all of you here in the Department of Treasury," Mrs. Obama said. "For this you deserve our admiration and our respect and our thanks....please know that the President and I are truly grateful for what you’ve done and what you’re going to continue to do."

At the time of her visit to The Fresh Grocer, Mrs. Obama noted how unprecedented it is to have the Treasury Secretary involved in Let's Move!.

"I don't think that many Treasury Secretaries can claim childhood obesity as part of their portfolio, right?" Mrs. Obama said. "It is pretty cool to have your husband's Treasury Secretary enthusiastically a part of this initiative."

The First Lady shook hands and posed for photos with staffers after her remarks.

As she exited back into the Washington heat for the walk back to the White House, Mrs. Obama passed a donation box for Feds Feed Families, an administration-wide initiatve that encourages government employees to donate food items for hunger banks across the National Capital region, in an effort to "fill in the gaps" for children during the summer months, when they don't have school feeding programs. It was started last year, inspired in part by Mrs. Obama's example of visiting food banks and homeless shelters, and has had a high rate of success. (Above: Mrs. Obama leaves the Treasury to walk back to the White House)

The video of Mrs. Obama's remarks:

On Monday, July 12, Mrs. Obama will bring Let's Move! to Kansas City, Missouri, when she addresses the NAACP convention at the Kansas City Convention Center.

Related: The First Lady's agency visit to USAID also had much discussion of food and food access. Mrs. Obama discusses food deserts in a White House video here.

Photos: First Lady at the Treasury by Obama Foodorama; market photos via AP; Mrs. Obama leaving the Treasury by Chuck Kennedy/White House.