As Mrs. Obama travels to Chicago for the first-ever Let's Move! food desert summit, the White House is confident that her efforts will encourage a rapid transformation in America's food system...
UPDATE: CLICK HERE for a full post about the food desert summit
On February 9, 2010, when First Lady Michelle Obama launched the Let's Move! initiative, she announced that eliminating the estimated 6,500 food deserts that exist in America in just seven years would be a pillar of her childhood obesity campaign. Today, with a little more than five years left to meet that goal, the White House is confident that it will "absolutely" be achieved, according to Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives Sam Kass. The First Lady and Kass will be in their hometown of Chicago today for the first-ever Let's Move! food desert summit, co-hosted by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, formerly Chief of Staff for President Obama. (Above: Mrs. Obama shops at the Farmers Market BY The White House in 2009, one of the many food access projects she has supported. Kass is behind the tent pole)
"I firmly believe we can meet that goal," Kass told me during an interview. "We're seeing amazing energy around the issue and communities really starting to begin to tackle this in ways that make sense to them."
Food deserts are impoverished rural and urban areas that do not have easy, close access to supermarkets, and achieving Mrs. Obama's goal will of necessity create a sweeping transformation in the national food supply chain that will alter the food shopping habits--and theoretically drop the obesity rate--of what the White House says are the 23.5 million Americans who currently live in food deserts (this number includes 6.5 million children). As she made her pledge--the first of its kind from any White House--the First Lady admitted that it was "ambitious."
Mrs. Obama is well on her way, however. In July, she announced commitments from major grocery corporations, including America's largest grocer, Walmart, and America's largest pharmacy chain, Walgreens, to build or transform as many as 1,500 grocery stores in food deserts over the next five years. The new stores--and outlets that have been revamped to include things like fresh and cut produce-- will offer healthy foods cheek by jowl with the standard fare of processed and junk foods.
"That will impact about 9.5 million people and tackle about forty percent of the nation's food deserts in one announcement alone," Kass said.*
Mrs. Obama is today expected to unveil a new food access commitment involving farmers markets and local sourcing from the Walgreens corporation, when she speaks at 2:45 PM at a Walgreens store located at 11 East 75th Street in Chicago. The store is one of the prototype food desert revamps, and now offers healthy foods alongside its pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and paper products.
The First Lady, US Mayors, and Let's Move!...
But with the clock ticking toward 2017, more needs to happen rapidly: Building or altering thousands of markets, and creating other food access initiatives such as farmers markets, needs an aggressive push, and focused leadership at the local level. To that end, eight Mayors from across the US were invited to the summit, to meet with Kass and other Administration officials.
"Our message is that Mayors have a real responsibility here, and a real opportunity and ability to have a significant impact," Kass said. "Without the support of Mayors, communities will not be able to overcome these challenges."
The White House also wants to hear from the Mayors about "what's happening on the ground," what has worked in their communities and what hasn't, Kass said.
"We're looking to highlight the role of Mayors and really identify the best practices they can have in their communities," Kass said.
The invited Mayors include Joseph Curtatone of Somerville, MA; R. T. Rybak of Minneapolis, MN; Mick Cornett of Oklahoma City, OK; Heather Hudson of Greenville, MS; Willis "Chip" Johnson of Hernando, MS; Manuel Lozano of Baldwin Park, CA; Tom Barrett of Milwaukee, WI; and Stephanie Rawlings-Blake of Baltimore, MD.
All have created policies in their communities to combat obesity or improve food access and affordability. For instance, in Baltimore, Mayor Rawlings-Blake has the The Baltimore Food Policy Initiative, which focuses on improving food access and affordability. She's also created the "value-to-vacants program," which allows the use of vacant lots for urban farming and farmers markets. In Somerville, Mayor Curtatone has a mobile farmers market, a food truck that has been making twice-weekly visits to a large housing project. In Oklahoma City, Mayor Cornett made national headlines when he put himself--and his entire city--on a diet, and created a website to track the collective progress.
Mrs. Obama has been wooing Mayors since before she formally launched the Let's Move! campaign; in January of 2010, Mrs. Obama "previewed" her anti-obesity initiative during an address to the US Conference of Mayors. A month later, Mayor Johnson and Mayor Curtatone, who will attend today's summit, joined the First Lady at the White House for the official launch of the Let's Move! campaign. Both Mayors spoke at the event.
In Chicago, Mayor Emanuel has rapidly emerged as a model local Chief Executive for best-practices in urban food policy. The lessons of Let's Move! were well learned by Emanuel during his time at the White House, and he continues to get guidance from his former colleagues, according to Kass.
"Obviously we've been in close communication with him on everything," Kass said.
Inaugurated last May, Emanuel campaigned on a platform that included components of the Let's Move! initiative. This summer, he convened a meeting of grocery CEOS in Chicago to discuss food deserts, and it was he who was responsible for getting the Deerfield, Illinois-based Walgreens to step up with its food desert pledge. Under Emanuel's guidance, the Chicago City Council recently retooled zoning restrictions to allow for urban farms and to create more opportunities for vendors to sell locally grown produce.
Today's roundtable for the Mayors will begin at City Hall, and later they will go to the 7-acre Iron Street Urban Farm, at 3333 S. Iron St. It is the Chicago headquarters for Growing Power, the pathbreaking city farm created by urban agriculture expert Will Allen in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The farm grows fresh produce through all four seasons.
Mrs. Obama will tour the project with Mayor Emanuel at 3:50 PM, after she delivers her remarks at the Walgreens store.
Other Administration officials traveling to Chicago to meet with the Mayors include Let's Move! Executive Director Dr. Judy Palfrey; HHS’s Assistant Secretary for Health Dr. Howard Koh, and Matt Josephs with the US Department of Treasury’s Community Development Financial Institutions Fund, which has made grants of $25 million to food desert projects under the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI), a fund that finances grocery markets and other food-access projects. IFF, a Chicago-based non-profit lender, was one of the awardees, and received a $3 million grant.
The First Lady's time in Chicago is sandwiched between fundraisers for her husband's 2012 re-election bid. Before arriving in Chicago, Mrs. Obama will speak at a 12:55 PM Democratic National Committee reception in Detroit, at the Westin Cadillac Book. In the evening, at 6:40 PM, Mrs. Obama will deliver remarks at a Democratic National Committee reception at Chicago Journeymen Plumbers Union hall, 1340 W. Washington Blvd. A detailed schedule is here.
The First Lady returns to the White House on Tuesday night.
*1,500 is not 40 percent of 6,500.
*Photo by Samantha Appleton/White House