Monday, August 09, 2010

First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! Campaign Hits A Milestone

Reflections on the first half year...
"It’s time for a moment of truth for our country; it’s time we all had a wake up call," First Lady Michelle Obama said as she launched the Let's Move! campaign from inside the snow-covered White House, last February 9th.

The State Dining Room was jammed with Cabinet Secretaries, lawmakers, child health and food advocates, medical professionals, farmers, policy makers, and agency officials, all invited for the big roll out of the new campaign, which the White House had been hinting at for a month. The standing-room only crowd spilled out of three doorways into the hall. Over two centuries, the brocade-draped State Dining Room had been the site of thousands of historic events, but none quite like this.

With a huge video screen as a backdrop--and a group of school kids clad in Let's Move! t-shirts seated on the stage behind her--Mrs. Obama described the most ambitious, comprehensive series of initiatives ever put together in an effort to alter the health status of children. As she announced that her focus was an entire generation of children, and that resources had already been mobilized to ensure that the campaign would continue long after her time in the White House was over, the room felt volcanic with excitement. The First Lady's campaign is officially six months old today, and it's been one long wake up call. (Above: Mrs. Obama speaking at the launch, in front of USDA's Food Environment Atlas)

The crowd restrains itself...
I can accurately report that many people's mouths were hanging open in pure surprise as they listened to Mrs. Obama speak last February. Or they were smiling so broadly they looked as if their faces might split. There were even people wiping away tears. I was standing on a high media riser at the back of the room, and I can also report that I almost fell off a few times. Despite closely following the First Lady for what then already seemed like ages, she was presenting such a vast array of initiatives that I became dizzy. And I was a scoche distracted by a group of child health advocates standing along one wall, who gave each other high-fives each time Mrs. Obama announced another element of the campaign. It seemed possible that they might burst into song.

Will Allen...
Adding to the almost surreal atmosphere: Urban farming legend Will Allen of Growing Power took the podium right before the First Lady. Allen had been the leader in his field for years, and already been named a MacArthur "genius" and to the Time 100 list of most influential people in the world. But no administration had previously invited him in. No administration had ever considered the idea that eking vast amounts of food crops out of tiny spaces deserved White House attention. People in the crowd whispered Allen's name to each other, as if they were whispering the name of a holy man, when he walked into the room. He'd be invited back to the White House three months later, as a guest for the State Dinner with Mexico. (Above: Mrs. Obama listens to Allen speak)

Signal moments...
When Mrs. Obama first planted the Kitchen Garden, less than a year before, that had seemed to many observers like a signal moment in American food history, as had the opening of the Farmers Market By the White House. Especially when Mrs. Obama announced to the rain-drenched crowd who'd showed up to watch her laud local vegetables that her garden was "one of the greatest things that I've done in my life so far." And now here was a campaign that would not only combat childhood obesity, but ensure health for all American children, with a focus on nutritious food, fitness, gardening, improving information for parents, retooling school feeding programs, encouraging corporations to offer better foods....etc., etc., ETC. It was astonishing. I was, of course, not the only person who thought so.

Could it work?
But it also sounded so vast, and so detailed, and brought together so many disparate elements under one huge umbrella, that it seemed difficult to believe. So many people had separately worked on the various initiatives, for so long--that it seemed unlikely that it could become a unified campaign.

Even "campaign" felt like the wrong word. This was Annapurna. It was possibly the Kraken, if things went wrong. It was, in the best-case scenario, the biggest orrery ever created, with Mrs. Obama the center of the solar system.

Whatever it was, it seemed as risky as it was comprehensive, as potentially volatile as it was ambitious. Mrs. Obama was putting herself forward as the leader of the campaign, speaking of food, and weight and exercise, and heading into territory uncharted by any First Lady. Territory uncharted by anyone, for that matter. She'd already announced, early in January, that she hoped eliminating childhood obesity would be her legacy. (Above: The President signs the memo creating the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity, on the morning of February 9, as the First Lady and Cabinet Secretaries Arne Duncan, Kathleen Sebelius, Tom Vilsack and Ken Salazar look on. It is the first-ever task force of its kind)

Six months in, the campaign has become more than believable. Mrs. Obama--and her very hardworking team--have gotten a huge response from across the country, inspiring not only a national conversation about food and health and fitness, but unprecedented action. As the Let's Move! components have rolled out, a legion of public and private foundations, corporations, local, state and federal lawmakers, parents, families, schools, citizens groups, sports organizations, and media conglomerates have signed on--and acted on their commitments. The campaign has been embraced and put into action on a multiplicity of levels.

The Chefs Move To Schools project, the most recent component to be launched (June 4), stands out as one of the most out-of-the-box initiatives of Let's Move!, in a campaign in which the fundamental idea is already out-of-the-box. In fairly short order, thousands of schools and chefs have enrolled. It's just one example of the response. (Above: Senior Policy Adviser for Healthy Food Initiatives Sam Kass listens to Mrs. Obama speak at the launch; he's led her team for the campaign, and is responsible for Chefs Move)

And Let's Move! has now become an international conversation, with Mrs. Obama and the campaign being held up as a model for other countries.

The child nutrition legislation...
Last week, the campaign had its first legislative win when the Senate had a moment of truth, and unanimously approved historic child nutrition legislation. The House has its own child nutrition bill pending, which will be addressed when lawmakers return to Washington in the Fall. When the legislation is signed into law, it will create sweeping reforms in the federal nutrition programs and in school cafeterias across America. The healthy changes created in the school food environment by the legislation is one of the cornerstone's of Mrs. Obama's campaign, and she's been encouraging lawmakers to act for months.

"While childhood obesity cannot be solved overnight, with everyone working together, there’s no question that it can be solved," Mrs. Obama said, as she lauded the Senate for taking action. "Today’s vote moves us one step closer to reaching that goal."

The criticism that has emerged since both the House and Senate introduced their legislation has been primarily about funding--but funding arguments miss the point. The legislation, taken together, provides critical framework. It's an ambitious architecture that girder by individual girder builds a bridge to the future for a healthier generation of children. Does the level of funding matter? Of course it does. But so much will change even with the lower levels of funding that arguments against the legislation based solely on funding are entirely misguided. The legislation enacts Mrs. Obama's wake-up call, the moment of truth for children's health, in the place where many kids spend most of their time: School.

Yet it's another sign of the success of Mrs. Obama's campaign that what's being argued about is dollars--and not sense. Few knowledgeable critics are realistically questioning anything else in the legislation.

Culture changer...
In fairly short order, Mrs. Obama and her team have managed to put a large rip in the obesogenic fabric of American culture, and it's only going to get bigger. They've pulled the critical threads that will lead to the eventual unraveling of what's become a toxic environment for America's children. And for adults, for that matter. There's no measuring the success of the campaign at the moment, except perhaps by that unanimous Senate vote. That was truly a shining historic moment, in a series of historic moments brought on by Mrs. Obama and her team.

ObFo is still occasionally dizzy, but very much looking forward to the next six months of the campaign. The White House will be loaded with new initiatives come Fall....

*Photos by Obama Foodorama, except for photo with President Obama; that's by Pete Souza/White House