Friday, November 05, 2010

Under Attack: First Lady Michelle Obama And The Healthy Food Financing Initiative

Critics call food deserts a scam, give First Lady "Golden Hookah award" for promoting wasteful government spending
UPDATE, Nov. 27: The First Lady discussed conservative pushback against Let's Move! during an interview with Barbara Walters
Talk of combating "wasteful government spending" is at an all-time high with the Republican party newly empowered after Tuesday's historic demolition of the Democratic majority in the House. On Thursday, after a meeting with his Cabinet, President Obama vowed to "root out waste in government." The criticism of big government has gotten a bit more personal for the President: First Lady Michelle Obama is now under assault for "wasteful government spending," too.

Mrs. Obama has just been "awarded"'s Golden Hookah Award for her ongoing promotion of the $400 million Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI), a cornerstone of the Let's Move! campaign that's designed to help meet the very ambitious goal of eliminating food deserts in America in just seven years. The Golden Hookah Award is the "symbolic token" given to government agencies as the “What Were They Smoking Award for outrageous government spending, which sends Americans' hard earned tax dollars up in smoke."

CNSNews. com and other critics are calling food deserts "a scam" (that's the kindest word that's been used), and pointing to the HFFI as the latest example of federal excess. Never mind that Mrs. Obama is neither a government agency nor an elected official; never mind that she's become the nation's foremost advocate for children, healthy eating and fitness, and is attempting change the health status of America's next generation. Never mind that the HFFI hasn't even been funded yet; Mrs. Obama got the award.

"Encouraging people to buy more fruits and veggies is all well and good, but Congress needs to do a price check on this supermarket spending and decide to bag it," Craig Bannister says of the HFFI in the video, above. He does have the sense to note that the Golden Hookah Award is being given to Mrs. Obama "preemptively."

It took eight months for the critics to even become aware of the HFFI, and it seems no coincidence that the outrage has emerged just as Mrs. Obama hit the campaign trail to support Democratic candidates in the 2010 election. Joined by Treasury Secretary Tim Geither and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Mrs. Obama formally announced the program in February of 2010, during a visit to a supermarket in Philadelphia. Under the FY 2011 budget, Treasury, HHS, and USDA will jointly fund the initiative, which seeks to bring grocery stores and other healthy food retailers to underserved urban and rural communities across America, by making available a mix of federal tax credits, below-market rate loans, loan guarantees, and grants to attract private sector capital that will more than double the total federal investment. It replicates a state-level program in Pennsylvania that has been very successful. (Above: Mrs. Obama during the launch of the HFFI)

Ground zero for the criticism of Mrs. Obama, food deserts and the HFFI is this Oct. 27 piece, Michelle Obama's $400 million 'Food Desert' Scam, by Terence P. Jeffrey, which also appeared on Jeffrey quotes USDA's own June 2009 food access and affordability study, "Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food: Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and Their Consequences" to debunk the HFFI and castigate the First Lady.

"The report demonstrates that Mrs. Obama’s depiction of American “food deserts” is fatuous at best. Lower-income Americans live closer to supermarkets than higher-income Americans," Jeffrey wrote. (emphasis added)

The problem: Jeffrey reduces USDA's statistics about the number of people who live in food deserts down to just those who need to take public transit to grocery stores, and bases his argument against Mrs. Obama and the HFFI on this.

"Only 0.1 percent—one-tenth of one percent—of Americans living in low-income areas more than 1 mile from a supermarket took public transit to the store, the report said. For them, Mrs. Obama would create a new $400 million entitlement," Jeffrey wrote.

It's pure reduction, and overlooks the complicated issues involved in food access and affordability. But the phrase "one-tenth of one percent" is the one that's getting repeated over and over in the Con media, as is the statistic about "travel time." Jeffrey's piece has appeared on every major Con news site and has spread across the internet like wildfire. Rush Limbaugh weighed in on Mrs. Obama and food deserts on his radio show on Nov. 1, and called the HFFI "an entitlement program supported by First Lady Moochelle Obama" (sic). He used the one-tenth figure, and also focused on travel time to supermarkets.

"The study that was used to support this premise found that low-income people travel almost 20 minutes to get to a good grocery store, compared with 15 minutes for the average American," Limbaugh said. "Well! I mean, you can see why parents won't feed their kids properly: They'd have to spend 40 minutes round-trip travel time to acquire the good food, while the rest of us only have to spend a half hour."

Glenn Beck weighed in on his TV show on Oct. 29, too; he's previously suggested that Mrs. Obama and the Let's Move! campaign will lead to global riots over French fries.

"You know what, Mrs. Obama? Would you do me a favor? When you can get your husband to stop smoking in a federal building, then call me," Beck sneered after telling his audience that Mrs. Obama "needs $400 million for food deserts so we can make the right choices and we have the right food available so when can all have carrots?" (sic)

Attacks on First Ladies are not unprecedented; Eleanor Roosevelt, Nancy Reagan and Hillary Rodham Clinton were assaulted during their husbands' presidencies. And Mrs. Obama is now in a unique position: There are thirteen federal agencies involved with Let's Move!, according to campaign Executive Director Robin Schepper. Many of the President's Cabinet Secretaries--also targets for GOP criticism--have made appearances with Mrs. Obama since the Let's Move! campaign began. It's driving a good portion of Obama administration policy, from education through defense through urban planning, and thus, Mrs. Obama is ripe for criticism. Negative chatter about 'food deserts' has already migrated outward into criticism of President Obama. This Nov. 3 piece in The American Thinker is titled "President Obama's food desert" (sic). It's a very snarky look at the President's visits to two Chicago eateries last weekend. (Above: The President and Mrs. Obama with Secretaries Duncan, Sebelius, Vilsack and Salazar, as the President signed the memo creating the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity)

Those who are against the HFFI could be successful in stopping it from getting full funding in the FY 2011 budget, in the end. In the new post-Election 2010 era of Dem fear and Republican outrage, when members of the GOP are vowing to reduce the size of government and trim federal spending--with no clear details of what exactly this will entail--an initiative that's already won an award for government waste seems primed to be a target. But will it really matter to the overall "success" of the Let's Move! campaign if the HFFI doesn't get rolled out? Only time will tell. Mrs. Obama's campaign has already turned into a national conversation that's on its way to going global, and criticism is to be expected.

Related: A White House video with Mrs. Obama talking about food deserts is here. The First Lady's remarks at the launch of the Healthy Food Financing Initiative are here; a video of her remarks is here.

*Top photo by EGK/ObamaFoodorama; video from; market photo from Getty; Cabinet Secretaries photo by Pete Souza/White House