Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Reporters Luncheon: First Lady Reflects On Year One Of The Let's Move! Campaign

First Lady talks about policy achievements, Walmart, food deserts, labeling, the White House Super Bowl menu...and suggests Beck, Palin and Limbaugh join Let's Move!...With a look ahead at Year Two...
First Lady Michelle Obama
kicked off the one-year anniversary celebration for the Let's Move! campaign on Tuesday, with a White House luncheon with her print press corps, which included ObFo and nine other reporters. In a wide-ranging discussion, Mrs. Obama spoke about the past year, which in addition to the massive roll out for the Let's Move! campaign, has included solo international travel, a major focus on mentoring, and a big push on military family issues. (Above: Mrs. Obama speaking during lunch)

In just one year, the First Lady's campaign has mainstreamed the decades-long culture war over every aspect of eating and agriculture, inspiring policy change and palate change. Food was a hot topic before Mrs. Obama launched Let's Move! on Feb. 9, 2010, but one that was carried out largely on the sidelines of the culture. And Mrs. Obama is now in a unique position on the battlefield: She's a happy centrist, welcoming all comers to the debate, looking for support and the best ideas possible to end childhood obesity. But it speaks to the bipolar nature of America's relationship to food that Mrs. Obama is now simultaneously accused by critics of being the Nanny State Food Police, bent on banning junkfood, and blasted for serving junkfood at White House events.

On Tuesday, Mrs. Obama addressed the criticism, spoke for the first time on a new labeling initiative, discussed Walmart's savvy partnership with Let's Move!, and weighed in on what it all means for America. She also spoke about her impact on fashion and other topics; her comments are in this post.

Child nutrition legislation...
The standout policy and palate change this year was in school nutrition. The First Lady's leadership is responsible for the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the legislative centerpiece of her initiative, which revamps school meals across America, and impacts about 32 million children.

"It was one of the highlights getting the child nutrition legislation passed," Mrs. Obama said, over a lunch that used greens form her Kitchen Garden and honey from the South Lawn bee Hive.

"And I don't think I even appreciated the magnitude of it until you hear from the advocates that people have been fighting for these kind of changes for generations; that we haven’t made changes in our child nutrition legislation in like a decade."

With the Kitchen Garden, which she credits as one of the inspirations for Let's Move!, the First Lady has also thrust community and school gardens onto the national stage. There's far more to come. Let's Move! will dramatically build out in Year Two, Mrs. Obama said.

"It’s about doing more. More partnerships. More collaborations," Mrs. Obama said. "We’re looking for more corporations that will step up and implement new, big ideas. We want more churches involved. We want more parents asking for more information."

Mrs. Obama has also put the spotlight on fitness, donning sports gear and joining kids and major pro sports figures for much-photographed workouts in the last year. It's not just photo-ops: Mrs. Obama arrived in the Old Family Dining Room a bit out of breath, because she'd just sprinted up the stairs with her Communications Director, Kristina Schake. The First Lady announced months ago that she's given up using the elevator at the White House in the interest of fitness. Mrs. Obama was clad in a dress she identified as being from American designer Marc Jacobs, and sparkly silver heels, but she'd still skipped up the stairs.

The Year Two build out begins on Wednesday, as a huge new PSA campaign designed by the Ad Council for 33,000 outlets is unveiled. It will reach 2o0 million people, according to Mrs. Obama. In the morning, she'll be in New York and appear on Today show and Live with Regis and Kelly. During an afternoon speech in Alpharetta, Georgia, the First Lady will highlight the campaign's accomplishments, as well as announce a new focus on the very youngest Americans, with a plan for very early childhood interventions. (Above: Mrs. Obama arrives with Schake; reporters are seated)

Walmart and Let's Move!: A beneficial business partnership
Mrs. Obama praised grocery giant Walmart for joining Let's Move! with a five-year Nutrition Charter, which includes an education campaign, making fruit and vegetables more affordable, and reformulating processed foods to trim sugar fat and salt.

The First Lady has no delusions; she is very well aware that the partnership is enlightened self interest on the part of Walmart.

"Walmart made the changes that it made partially because they wanted to be part of "Let's Move" but they were seeing their markets shift," Mrs. Obama said. "This is a business move for them and we know it. They said more of their customers are coming and looking for healthier options because fortunately demand is changing."

Walmart has 140 million customers weekly. Mrs. Obama is hoping more food corporations will join the campaign, and she's convinced they'll be doing it because consumer demand rises.

"It won’t change because the First Lady said to change. If the business model doesn’t work, they’re not got do it. It’s got to be both," Mrs. Obama said.

Mrs. Obama said that one of her strongest roles in Let's Move! is to show parents and communities how much power they have to change the marketplace.

"One of the things that I tell parents is that it’s up to us to shake the market with our demand. If we ask for it, they’ll build it. If we buy it, they’ll produce it," Mrs. Obama said.

Executives from Walmart have also pledged to build new stores in food deserts, places where fresh and affordable foods aren't already available. Mrs. Obama has a campaign goal of eliminating food deserts in seven years, and Year Two will see more action in this area, she said, with the beginning of funding roll outs for the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, which provides new market tax credits for grocers to build in underserved areas.

The Nutrition Keys labeling scheme...
For the first time since the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute unveiled the Nutrition Keys, a new and voluntary front-of-package labeling scheme, Mrs. Obama gave an opinion on the subject.

The graphic that will appear on labels four segments, with one each for calories, sodium, and fat. The fourth can be used to highlight a product's healthy ingredients, and experts have pointed out that this could lead to things like ice cream being promoted as "healthy," because it contains calcium.

The labeling is not precisely what the White House had in mind, not in line with any FDA regulations, and Mrs. Obama did not appear at the press conference to launch the initiative, though the food corporations announced they'd created the labeling at her urging. The First Lady said she's adopting a "wait and see" attitude before endorsing the scheme.

"I think the FDA is going to be monitoring the effectiveness of what they’re doing, because I think the goal, ultimately, is to make sure that parents have clearer information," Mrs. Obama said. "And if what’s been implemented is going to do that, and it’s working, and it’s not causing confusion, then that's great."

Melody Barnes, Director of the Domestic Policy Council and chair of the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity, said that her team from the West Wing, and representatives from FDA and Health and Human Services have been monitoring the labeling, and will be trying to determine its effectiveness.

"We were pleased that the industry stepped up and engaged in this conversation," Barnes said. "I mean, they said that they wouldn’t have done that but for the fact that we have said this is important to the American consumer. So that was an important first step. And we’ll see how things evolve over time."

Early childhood initiatives, international outreach...
During Year Two, the First Lady will be promoting breastfeeding, she said, and highlighting the need for improved nutrition and fitness for preschoolers, with a spate of programs designed for home and care giver situations.

"We also want to focus on the important touch points in a child's life. And what we're learning now is that early intervention is key," Mrs. Obama said. "Breastfeeding. Kids who are breastfed longer have a lower tendency to be obese. We want to get into child-care centers, day-care centers...We want to have those conversations at an earlier level. But those are just some of the things that you'll see."

The First Lady said she'll work the campaign into her international platform, too.

"I find internationally, and Barack says the same thing, whenever he meets with a world leader, one of the first things they ask him about is the garden because the issue of obesity is becoming an international issue," Mrs. Obama said. "So I’m sure there will be some opportunities internationally to talk about obesity, to look at issues of maternal-child health issues as a part of that."

Mrs. Obama will be taking solo trips abroad in 2011, but where these will be is still off the record.

Sarah Palin who?...
Mrs. Obama said that she doesn't have time to register what critics like Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh say about her or the Let's Move! campaign. Each has very publicly insisted that Mrs. Obama wants to control what parents feed their children, and suggested this includes dessert bans and outlawing French fries. Less well-known critics have parroted the criticism.

Mrs. Obama sees the criticism as media spin, and called it "predictable," as well as a fact of life for residents of the White House.

"There's a different conversation that goes on in the media and in real life on the ground," Mrs. Obama said. "And my experience is, when I go out and I’m in a school and I’m in a church or I’m in Tucson or on a military base, is that people are appreciative of the work that we do."

Asked her opinion about Palin, Mrs. Obama brushed her off.

"I don't think about her in this initiative," Mrs. Obama said.

She pointed to the campaign as being bipartisan, noting that high-profile members of the GOP support Let's Move, including former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, and former Senator Bill Frist, who co-chairs the non-profit foundation created to support Let's Move!, Partnership for a Healthier America.

"My whole thing is let’s just keep working and not try to figure all this stuff out and worry too much about it, because there's so much work to do," Mrs. Obama said about being criticized. "And let’s figure out how to get this done and work with as many people as we can, and this stuff will all sort itself out in the end."

Still, reporters pressed Mrs. Obama. What does she have to say to Limbaugh, Beck, and Palin?

"Let's Move!," Mrs. Obama said brightly, and started to laugh. Everyone at the table joined her.

Does the White House Super Bowl menu send the wrong message to America?
Despite brushing off her critics, Mrs. Obama took time to defend Sunday's White House Super Bowl party menu, and once again stress that she's not promoting "deprivation" with the campaign, but rather moderation and balance.

The White House Super Bowl treats were calorie-heavy regional foods chosen to represent the Packers and Steelers: Cheeseburgers, Deep Dish Pizza, Buffalo Wings, a number of potato dishes, Bratwurst and Kielbasa. When asked if she thought this was 'sending the wrong message' to Americans, Mrs. Obama pointed to a lone healthy menu item.

"There was salad," Mrs. Obama said, and added that her menu was based on "tradition."

"I don't even know what you have other than some hot dogs and some burgers for a Super Bowl party. That's what the Super Bowl is," Mrs. Obama said.

The First Lady also pointed out that the message of Let's Move! is not about restriction or deprivation, and that eating junk foods sometimes is fine.

"It’s always about balance," Mrs. Obama said. "The message has always been about balance."

The fundamental problem with Americans' eating habits, according to the First Lady: We've "flipped the script," she said.

"Fast food has become the everyday meal," Mrs. Obama said. "As opposed to pizza being the treat, it is the thing that kids eat every day because sometimes that's all they’ll eat. We’ve gone to that extreme in this country. And that's not balance."

During her many road trips for the campaign during Year One, the First Lady visited schools that are already engaging in best practices for eating and physical fitness. Rather than focus on the positive, Mrs. Obama has highlighted solutions that can be replicated elsewhere. Mining the same vein, Mrs. Obama put a positive spin on the Super Bowl menu criticism, too.

Discussions like that are good for Let's Move!, and keep her national conversation "alive," she said.

"I think the debate about what’s served at the Super Bowl and what isn’t -- I think those are good because it makes people ask themselves, “Well, what did I eat at the Super Bowl? And what do we think about for Christmas dinner?”

The ideas of balance and moderation may be the hardest concepts to get across to America, if the past year is any indication. But Mrs. Obama is fully aware that she's at the start of a long, long campaign.

"The goal is generational. It isn’t a one-year, two-year, five-year goal," Mrs. Obama said. "We will not see the impacts of what we’re doing today in many, many years. We got here in a generation and probably a little bit more. So it’s going to take some time."

As the lunch ended, Mrs. Obama left with Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives Sam Kass to join a series of conference calls with Let's Move! supporters. The separate calls were also joined by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, and Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, and Mayor Dayne Walling of Flint, Michigan, and Mayor Julián Castro of San Antonio, Texas.

ObFo was at the Feb. 9, 2010 White House launch of Let's Move!, and here's a personal essay about the event, written when the campaign hit the six-month milestone. The campaign seeks to return America to a childhood obesity rate of 5% by 2030, down from the current level of about 31 percent of children who are identified as overweight, with a little more than 17 percent of these identified as obese. In May of 2010, the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity issued a Report that has 70 specific recommendations as the action plan for Let's Move. Download the Full Report PDF [3.3MB]. (Above: Mrs. Obama launching the campaign)

*Top photo by Chuck Kennedy/White House; second by Lynn Sweet of Chicago Sun-Times; third by ObamaFoodorama