Monday, February 07, 2011

First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! Campaign At One Year: Weighing The Impact

As the First Lady marks the first anniversary of her national campaign to end childhood obesity, experts and the White House's Kristina Schake and Robin Schepper discuss a year of firsts for Mrs. Obama...
First Lady Michelle Obama will mark the one-year anniversary of Let's Move! on Tuesday and Wednesday during a series of events and media appearances. Right now, there's no mathematical calculation possible for the Administration-wide effort to reduce the national prevalence of a childhood obesity epidemic that took decades to create. But in interviews with expert observers about the impact of the campaign's first year, the words "historic," "unprecedented," and "impressive" became a theme. And there was a consensus that the support for Let’s Move! from the business sector is a unique event in any national campaign ever run by a First Lady, in a year that has had a series of groundbreaking firsts.

Members of Mrs. Obama's staff also weighed in on the campaign year.

Dr. Myra Gutin,
a professor of communications at Rider University in New Jersey and a First Lady historian, is th
e author of two books on the impact of First Ladies. Gutin deems Let's Move! "a tremendous success."

"She really has made healthy eating and fitness part of the national conversation," Gutin said of Mrs. Obama. "That's quite an achievement."

Indeed, the mainstreaming of issues that food policy experts and advocates have battled over for years is one of the more acute outcomes of the campaign this year.

Dr. Marion Nestle, a nutritionist and author, and the Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, is a sharp critic of the practices of food corporations as well as of government food policy.

"I'm still in awe of the fact that the First Lady took on childhood obesity as a project," Nestle said. "No public health issue has ever had that kind of leadership before, and I, for one, am grateful for it."

To combat an epidemic that has sprung from a complicated series of interconnected threads deeply woven into the supersized fabric of American culture, the Let's Move! campaign is like a multifaceted gemstone. Since she launched the campaign on Feb. 9, 2010, Mrs. Obama has literally traveled from coast to coast, rounding up support and explaining her campaign to everyone from kids and parents to school officials and nutrition directors, food industry leaders, mayors, governors, fitness, health experts and medical professionals, and chefs. (Above: Mrs. Obama talks veggies with school kids in Miami, Florida)

Mrs. Obama has also hula hooped, played touch football, and run around gyms with hundreds of kids to promote the fitness elements of the initiative.

“I thought the First Lady’s choice of action areas—doing something about foods in schools and inner cities—were superb choices,” Nestle said.

As she unveiled a huge slate of Let's Move! sub-initiatives, and announced goals that included eliminating food deserts in seven years and dramatically improving the National School Lunch program, the First Lady has spoken to so many people that it's now impossible to have an accurate head count, according to Kristina Schake, Mrs. Obama’s Communications Director.

"If she's invited to speak at an event, there are often a myriad of groups in the room that we couldn't begin to count or document, " Schake said. "Moreover, because everyone knows childhood obesity is her top issue, people come up to her and tell her about what they're doing all the time, regardless of whether we're at a Let's Move! event or not."

Gutin noted that while Let's Move! is "right in line" with campaigns run by other First Ladies, including Lady Bird Johnson's "beautification" campaign, which focused on the environment, Rosalynn Carter's initiative on mental health issues; and Barbara Bush's campaign for literacy, the public support for Let's Move! seems larger than anything she's previously observed for a First Lady's campaign.

"The most amazing part of the Let’s Move! campaign is the outpouring of support from individuals and groups from around the country," said Robin Schepper, who was selected as Executive Director of Let's Move! last August.

Hundreds of advocates and interested parties from the public and private sector have weighed in on the campaign during meetings at the White House with Mrs. Obama as well as other members of the White House staff, Schepper said, including those on the Domestic Policy Council and in the Office of Public Engagement and the Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives.

"Combating childhood obesity is a top priority of this Administration," Schake said. "We’ve been very public about our interest and willingness to meet with folks and hear their perspectives on how best to tackle the problem and we’ve tried our best to hear from a wide variety of people with very different views."

Dr. Catherine Allgor, Presidential Chair at the University of California at Riverside, a professor of history and a First Lady historian, also thinks Mrs. Obama's campaign is "the biggest ever." Mrs. Obama has created a unique "bipartisan location" for people to come together around child health, according to Allgor.

"Sometimes a "bipartisan location" is a place, sometimes it's an issue," Allgor said. "Mrs. Obama is a charismatic figure, and she's sending us the same kind of message about healthy eating and fitness that President Obama had on the campaign trail: It's time for a change."

"It’s something a lot of people can get behind,” Allgor said.

Calling support for the campaign an "outpouring" is not overstatement. One example: Sam Kass (l), Mrs. Obama's Senior Policy Adviser for Healthy Food Initiatives, visited Orlando two weeks ago, because in the Orange County Public School district, local professional chefs have joined kids, parents, and nutrition directors at eleven schools under the Chefs Move To Schools initiative. Kass was on hand to cheer as the gang demonstrated new collaborative recipes for healthier school lunches. The Florida chefs are among more than 2,000 from across the US who signed on for the Chefs Move initiative.

Like Mrs. Obama, Kass also traveled America this year, meeting with Governors, food industry groups, school nutrition professionals, and plenty of kids to promote Let's Move!.

Schepper is also part of the White House mobilization effort, among other things meeting with groups about the Safe Routes to Schools campaign, which encourages walking or cycling to schools. She'll be at the Tribal Nations conference in April, launching Let's Move Indian Country, which is focused specifically on Native Americans.

In the last year, Mrs. Obama also launched Let's Move Cities and Towns, Let's Move Outside, Let's Move Faith and Communities, and Let's Move in The Clinic.

In a commonsense campaign, a revolutionary element…
But Gutin pointed out that Let's Move! has one crucial difference from other First Ladies' campaigns that not only makes it a historic departure, but which will truly ensure that it has the long-term impact that Mrs. Obama and her team are hoping for.

"I've never seen a partnership between a First Lady and the corporate world that Mrs. Obama has with business," Gutin said. "That's really impressive."

Gutin said that First Ladies typically have the enthusiastic support of the non-profit world, which Mrs. Obama certainly enjoys, but getting major businesses to join the Let's Move! campaign is unprecedented.

Walmart, a multi-billion dollar global corporation and the largest grocer in America, has partnered with Let's Move! with its Nutrition Charter, a five-year pledge to reformulate its processed foods, trimming sugar, fats, and salt, and to also make these more affordable. The company will join Mrs. Obama in combating food deserts by building special stores in underserved areas, making fresh fruits and vegetables more widely available, as well as more affordable. Walmart has 140 million customers a week, just one indicator of the massive scale of the Let's Move! campaign. (Above: Mrs. Obama speaking at the press conference about the Walmart partnership)

In another campaign achievement this year, the major food corporations that make up the American Beverage Association, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, and the Food Marketing Institute have agreed to voluntarily change front-of-package labeling, placing nutrition information in a place where it’s easily available for parents. And the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, a sixteen-member coalition of major food corporations, including Kraft, PepsiCo, and ConAgra, has agreed to eliminate 1.5 trillion calories from the food chain over the next five years.

The three largest companies that supply school foods have also committed to reformulate their processed offerings, trimming sugar, fat and salt over the next decade.

"Getting those entities on board is pretty revolutionary," Gutin said, for a campaign that is both "solid" and makes "total sense" in terms of Mrs. Obama "using her podium for good."

NYU's Nestle praised Mrs. Obama for her willingness to wade into what can be--and has been, this year--a controversial topic.

"No one should underestimate the magnitude of the challenge," Nestle said. "Fixing childhood obesity means changing society in profound ways which in turns means opposing the forces that led to our current situation in the first place."

The First Lady and school nutrition legislation...
For Nestle, those "opposing forces" are many of the corporations that Mrs. Obama has gotten to join the campaign. And sometimes, government interventions--or the lack thereof--can also be bad for child health. But this year, Mrs. Obama's efforts to persuade Congress to pass the landmark Healthy-Hunger Free Kids Act were a success. The legislation increases the reimbursement rate for school foods for the first time since the 1970s, as well as dramatically improves nutrition standards, including getting more locally sourced fresh produce onto kids' trays (read about the new standards here).

Though she didn't testify before Congress herself, the First Lady was a relentless advocate for the legislation to improve school foods, which impacts about 32 million children each year through the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs. Mrs. Obama repeatedly spoke publicly about the need for Congress to pass the legislation, she penned her first Op Ed as First Lady about it, and met behind the scenes with lawmakers and advocates, according to the East Wing. So, too, did other White House staff.

Celebrity chefs and TV personalities, including Rachael Ray, Tom Colicchio, Daniel Boulud, Jose Andres, Mario Battali, Cat Cora, and Spike Mendelsohn became Mrs. Obama's public surrogates for the need for the legislation; all repeatedly spoke out about it in national media. Colicchio devoted an entire episode of his highly rated Top Chef television show to school lunch, and Kass appeared on it as a guest judge.

Gutin also pointed to the Let's Move! partnerships with Disney, Nickelodeon, Major League Hockey, Major League Baseball, and the National Football League as crucial, and another kind of history maker. The public relations outreach for Let's Move! in just a single year has been impressive, Gutin said.

During the anniversary events this week, Mrs. Obama will unveil a new PSA campaign created by the Ad Council, which will reach 33,000 media outlets, according to the East Wing. It targets specific constituencies, such as children and non-white populations, for focused impact.

Pushback: A year of criticism
But of course there's been criticism of the campaign this year, thanks to the fact that Let's Move! actually is a national conversation. No part of the campaign has been free of assault. The First Lady's alliance with the food industry has led to suggestions from various camps that Mrs. Obama has "strong-armed" corporations into changing their practices. (Mrs. Obama asks the National Restaurant Association to join the campaign)

But the accusation of "strong arming" is entirely off base, according to Mrs. Obama's Communications Director.

"Our work with the private sector and any group interested in Let’s Move! is guided by the policy framework of the Obesity Task Force Report and the standards it set, " Schake said. "It's a non-negotiable framework."

Three months in the making, the 96-page Report has 70 specific recommendations, with 22 pages of end notes. Issued in May of 2010, it lays out the action plan for the campaign. If Mrs. Obama is going to partner with any entity, including a corporation like Walmart, that entity has to meet the standards and goals in the Report.

"The Report is used in the White House as a guide for all the groups we partner with," Schake said, whether these are corporate or non-profit. "It isn't a negotiation when we talk with people, because the framework is very specific."

The team that created the Report was led by Melody Barnes, Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.

Ray Gilmer, a vice president of United Fresh Produce Association, fairly rolled his eyes when asked about the idea of the White House "strong arming" the food industry.

"I don't see it," Gilmer said.

United Fresh has members from across the produce supply chain, including grocers. Despite what some people might think about the food industry, there's a big interest in promoting childhood health, Gilmer said, adding that Mrs. Obama's leadership is "a gift."

"The country can use that kind of direction with the high obesity rates," Gilmer said.

Of course Gilmer's group is in a unique position, since Mrs. Obama is encouraging a dramatic boost in the consumption of fruit and vegetables, as do the new federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

But Gilmer said produce industry efforts to promote child health had largely fallen on deaf ears over the years--until Mrs. Obama launched Let's Move!. Growers had little success in offering donations of fresh produce to schools, for a variety of reasons. But now United Fresh has joined the Let's Move Salad Bars to Schools intiative, as part of a founding coalition that as of last week includes Whole Foods.

"Big companies can make contributions, and [Let's Move!] is a great contribution to the future of America," Gilmer said.

More than 330 salad bars are now heading for public schools, and close to $1 million has been raised for the campaign.

The conservative criticism....
Fox News and other conservative commentators have gone to town talking about outlandish scenarios that the campaign could create, and suggested that Mrs. Obama, with food, is treading on Constitutional issues. Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh are among those who have said that the campaign is creating what Palin terms "a nanny state run amok."

All First Ladies get criticized, Gutin and Allgor noted. It comes with the territory of being a presidential partner. Both noted that during two years of bitter, partisan criticism of President Obama, the attacks on Mrs. Obama have been particularly acute. But for a campaign about child health, the attacks make little sense.

"Mrs. Obama is promoting moderation," Gutin said. "She's never suggested we don't eat dessert.”

The Con criticism is a "non starter" of an argument that "shows you the cracks in the system," Algor said, because opposing a child health campaign is absurd.

"It exposes the opportunistic rhetoric and hypocrisy of the right wing," Algor said. "There's really something wrong that anything the Obamas do needs to be criticized."

High-profile supporters, including former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, a Republican, have leapt to Mrs. Obama's defense, dismantling the critics' accusations.

"First Lady Michelle Obama's campaign is right on target," Huckabee said.

The campaign in the year ahead...
Over the next year, Let's Move! will charge forward with new projects, even as membership builds in the sub intiatives that have already been launched. Projects aimed at pre-school age children are in the immediate future, according to the East Wing's Schake. So, too, are talks with restaurant chains.

But NYU's Nestle warned that the campaign could see some "formidable obstacles." While Mrs. Obama has "the persuasive power of leadership," Nestle worries that the food industry's interest in profit could derail campaign efforts, despite their professed support.

"To prevent obesity, kids need to eat less in general and less of junk food in particular," Nestle said. "Eating less, alas, is very bad for the business. For a food industry desperate for profits, leadership can only do so much."

One thing is certain, however.

"Mrs. Obama will be remembered for this campaign," Gutin said.

Gutin pointed out that Lady Bird Johnson's 1960's-era "beautification"campaign, which seemed as "simple" and "commonsense" as much of Let's Move!, focused on things like cleaning up litter along highways. But the campaign changed the cultural consciousness, and morphed over the decades into a movement that now pervades America.

"The entire green movement is the great-granddaughter of Mrs. Johnson's campaign," Gutin said.

*Photos by EGK/, except for photo with kids in Miami; that's by Samantha Appleton/White House
*Nestle is the author of four books on food policy, including the classic "Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influence Nutrition and Health," available nationally and on Amazon, and she blogs for The Atlantic.

*Gutin is the author of "Barbara Bush: Presidential Matriarch," and "The Presidential Partner: First Ladies in the Twentieth Century," both available nationally and on Amazon.

*Allgor is the author of "Dolly Madison and The Creation of The American Nation," and "Parlor Politics: In Which The Ladies of Washington Help Build A City and a Government," both available nationally and on Amazon.