Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Winning The Future By Trimming The Pounds: Michelle Obama Talks Economics Of Obesity

Fighting obesity helps create jobs and stabilize budgets, First Lady tells mayors and elected officials at National League of Cities conference...
Since First Lady Michelle Obama launched Let's Move Cities and Towns in June of 2010, more than 550 communities have signed on. The Let's Move! sub-initiative is designed to encourage mayors and other elected officials to create long-term, sustainable, and locally specific approaches to fighting childhood obesity, and on Tuesday, Mrs. Obama said she has a far more ambitious goal for membership.

"We want to double those numbers," Mrs. Obama said, as she addressed the National League of Cities conference in Washington, DC.

Speaking from the stage of the cavernous ballroom at the Marriott Wardman Park hotel, flanked by American flags and backdropped by a 50-foot screen glowing with the Let's Move! logo, Mrs. Obama echoed President Obama's latest catch phrase as she encouraged the audience of about 1,500 mayors and other elected community officials to join her campaign.

"If we are truly going to win the future--and we all want that desperately--then we have to do everything we can today to give all our kids the healthy future that we all know they deserve," Mrs. Obama said.

The President introduced the concept of winning the future at his January State of the Union address, and every policy decision or platform emanating from the White House is now phrased in terms of that goal. But the First Lady was careful to tell the conference attendees--a bipartisan mix from across the US--that winning the future by fighting childhood obesity has nothing to do with party affiliation.

"This is not a Republican issue, it’s not a Democratic issue, it is about our children," Mrs. Obama said, which earned her a big round of applause.

Childhood obesity is about that ultimate bipartisan issue, the availability of cash, Mrs. Obama said: It is "an issue that can drastically alter the economic landscape of our cities and towns for generations to come."

As she ticked off the grave economic impact of not joining her campaign, Mrs. Obama made it clear that trimming America's waistlines is crucial for winning the future.

“So make no mistake about it: When we talk about childhood obesity, we’re talking about the workforce that you’re trying to build,” Mrs. Obama said. “We’re talking about businesses that you’re trying to attract. We’re talking about the budgets that you’re trying to balance each and every day.”

She gave a shopping list of examples.

"In the 10 cities with the nation’s highest obesity rates, the direct costs connected with obesity and obesity-related diseases are roughly $50 million per 100,000 residents," Mrs. Obama said.

Childhood obesity has a direct impact on parents' salaries, Mrs. Obama said.

"Studies show that obese children are less healthy and miss far more days of school on average," Mrs. Obama said. "So for the parents of those kids, that can mean more tardiness, more early departures from work, and higher absenteeism to stay home to care for these kids.

And, Mrs. Obama pointed out, cities will lose out on future opportunities, too. There will be no winning the future in unhealthy communities.

"A recent report by the Trust for America’s Health explains why," Mrs. Obama said. "And this is a quote from that report. They say that, “Businesses are reluctant to locate in areas where the population, particularly the future workforce, is unhealthy.”"

The First Lady has made a different economic argument for her campaign many times before, often noting that obesity and diet-related diseases add an excess $149 billion to America's annual health care burden. But Tuesday was the first time she brought the economic messaging down to the grassroots level, where the heart of her campaign must beat the strongest in order for her to achieve her goal of ending childhood obesity in a generation. One in three children in America is overweight or obese, according to the White House, and Mrs. Obama's campaign seeks to trim that prevalence level to just 5% by 2030. That's a lot of lost fat. And a lot of gained cash, apparently, if that particular future is "won."

Repurposing policy: Small steps, big impact
Mrs. Obama suggested that the mayors and other elected leaders take small steps for big impact--and she said that communities don't have to spend "extra" money on combating obesity, if they plan properly. And they don't have to do any legal wrangling, either.

"I want to emphasize the impact that you can make just by using the resources that you already have at your disposal," Mrs. Obama said. "And let’s be clear, you don’t have to pass sweeping new ordinances or spend a fortune to get results on this issue."

Fighting obesity can also create jobs, Mrs. Obama advised.

"In Philadelphia, Mayor Michael Nutter has worked with state officials, non-profits, and businesses on a Fresh Food Financing Initiative," Mrs. Obama said. "So what they’re doing in Philly is helping to open supermarkets in underserved areas, so that every neighborhood has access to fresh, affordable food."

It has caused a chain reaction in the business sector, Mrs. Obama explained, in addition to ensuring that people have access to more fresh and healthy fruit and vegetables.

"A new grocery store...can help drive business and create jobs for an entire neighborhood," Mrs. Obama said. "All told, this Fresh Food Financing Initiative has created or preserved more than 5,000 Pennsylvania jobs and improved access to healthy food for more than half a million people."

One of President Obama's biggest challenges since taking office has been reducing America's stubbornly high unemployment rate. The Recovery Act from Year One of his Administration was designed to create and preserve jobs.

"This is the kind of thing that can happen in every community across this country, it really can," Mrs. Obama said of the economic boons available from fighting fat. "All it takes is the right leader just to push a little bit on this issue."

The toolkit, and the response...
Conference attendees had been primed on Sunday and Monday for Mrs. Obama's appearance, Let's Move! Executive Director Robin Schepper told Obama Foodorama. Schepper said that she had visited the conference and spoken at seven different workshops, explaining the campaign, and speaking with the civic officials about how the community-level response can be tailored to specific local needs.

"Now, we know that there is not a one-size-fits-all solution here," Mrs. Obama said during her remarks. "For every one of you in this room, there is a solution that works best for your city, for your community."

Mrs. Obama urged everyone to pick up a copy of the 33-page Let's Move Cities and Towns "Toolkit for Local Officials." It's filled with advice, including how to develop a localized version of the Report from the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity, the action plan for the Let's Move! campaign.

There are suggestions for immediate steps that can be taken, and a resource list of foundations and websites that can help communities, whether their interests are in food and fitness policy--or both. The toolkit will be available online later this week, Schepper said, and White House staffers were manning a Let's Move! table in the hotel lobby, handing out hard copies. (Above: A copy of the toolkit)

The National League of Cities has been working with HHS on obesity issues for at least five years, said Leon Andrews, who oversees Youth Development. Many communities had health and fitness initiatives in place, but since Mrs. Obama launched Let's Move!, NLC has been working with the White House to bring those communities under the Let's Move! umbrella, Andrews said.

"It's a way to share success stories and help each other figure out what works best," Schepper said.

Communities will get help from regional directors from the US Department of Health and Human Services, which is running Let's Move Cities and Towns. A list of these individuals was being handed out, too.

"We've had a great response," Andrews said, and pointed out that within a half hour after Mrs. Obama left the conference, after she'd shaken hands with excited attendees for almost as long as she'd spoken, fifteen more communities had signed up for Let's Move Cities and Towns. In the morning, even before the First Lady's appearance, another 35 communities had signed on, too.

Schepper said that she hopes that ultimately, a national digital map for Let's Move Cities and Towns will be created as a resource to add to the toolkit, with multiple layers showing programs and ideas.

"Success has given us a lot more work to do," Schepper said.

Mrs. Obama was introduced before her remarks by Valerie Jarrett, one of President Obama's Senior Advisors. Jarrett, too, mentioned winning the future, and the concept has entered the vocabulary of all of the President's Cabinet Secretaries and advisors.

Related: The full transcript of the First Lady's remarks.

*Photos by Eddie Gehman Kohan/ObamaFoodorama.com