Let's Move! as the American Dream: The Senior Policy Advisor addresses ongoing food fights, debunks a big policy myth, and discusses the future of the First Lady's national campaign...
"This is literally life and death we are talking about," said Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives Sam Kass on Monday as he gave an impassioned call to action for First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign during his keynote address at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Weight of the Nation conference. Speaking to an audience of policy makers, academics, medical professionals and public health advocates gathered at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, DC, Kass described the many achievements of the campaign, now in its third year, and reeled off the dire statistics that have made it so necessary. (Kass, above)
"We are on the cusp of massive change and the time is now," Kass said. "We have an opportunity to broaden our coalitions and leverage our collective voice."
For the first time in public, Kass addressed some of the criticism of the First Lady and the Let's Move! campaign, and he also debunked the popular policy myth that reducing childhood obesity rates can be accomplished by the same kind of interventions that got Americans to reduce tobacco use.
The state of child health in America is beyond the dangerous tipping point, Kass reminded the audience, with one in three kids overweight or obese; millions suffering from diabetes, asthma, and other diet-related diseases; and America's educational achievement suffering. Obesity may be "our Nation's greatest national security threat," Kass said. Before he spoke, conference attendees listened to a report that revealed that childhood bullying based on obesity is a national but under-reported problem.
"I am amused by people who still at times characterize childhood obesity as a safe issue for the First Lady of the United States to take on," Kass said. "She did not pick this issue because it was perceived safe."
The long-term goal of Let's Move! is to reduce childhood obesity from its current rate of about 17% to a rate of just 5% by 2030. The CDC on Monday released a new report that finds that while obesity rates have currently hit a plateau, they are expected to increase over the next two decades from 32% of the population to 42%. That means that by 2030, without interventions, there will be roughly 30 million obese adults, which will add $550 billion to the nation’s medical expenditures, according to the report.
"We knew that setting such an ambitious long-term goal had tremendous risks," Kass said, adding that the White House also knew there would be criticism.
There has been plenty. After Mrs. Obama launched the campaign in February of 2010, critics--including some high-profile media commentators--dubbed the First Lady the Chief of the Food Police, which included wildly inaccurate accusations that she was attempting to outlaw unhealthy foods. More recently the criticism has flipped in the opposite direction, with the First Lady and the Obama Administration being accused of going "soft" by caving into the food and beverage lobby in a battle over reducing federal standards for junkfood advertising aimed at children. (Above: Mrs. Obama speaking during a Let's Move! event in the White House)
Kass noted that the critics have included "people who are working toward the same goal" as the First Lady, and said there's a lone problem with the many rebukes.
"At times the current discourse...forgets a core truth: There's no one-size-fits-all solution to an incredibly complicated problem that has been decades in the making," Kass said.
Solutions must go "deeper" than a single piece of legislation, or a single policy platform, Kass pointed out.
"We will only be successful when we can foster a new norm, where living an active lifestyle and eating healthy is a core value."
And speaking of active lifestyles, critics have also assailed the First Lady for announcing last October that the campaign will have a renewed focus on physical fitness initiatives in 2012. Some critics have maintained that this means Mrs. Obama is no longer focusing on healthy food projects--and some have asserted that this is also due to the food and beverage lobby, which donates loads of money to politicians. Mrs. Obama has backed off from healthy food projects due to election year priorities, critics have said.
The focus on nutrition and healthy food initiatives---including bringing healthy foods into underserved communities, known as food deserts--are as much of a Let's Move! priority as they were in the early part of the campaign, Kass said.
"From Day One we've always said that our kids need to be both eating right and getting active," Kass said. "I know...there is concern that we are abandoning our efforts around food. That is simply not the case."
"We remain as committed as ever to pulling every lever we have to improve nutrition for America's children."
To bolster his points, Kass during his remarks announced a new commitment from Birds Eye frozen foods to partner with Let's Move!. The company becomes the twentieth private-sector partner for the campaign, and has pledged a three-year, $6 million advertising and marketing effort to promote vegetables to kids with the 'GenVeg' project. It will include a partnership with Nickelodeon TV's iCarly show and the creation of two "kid inspired" vegetable products. It will be monitored by Partnership for a Healthier America, the foundation that supports Let's Move!.
Kass also announced that the US Department of Agriculture has dedicated $4 million to a project that will make it easier for farmers markets across the US to accept SNAP recipients' Electronic Benefit Cards, allowing those who participate in the federal nutrition safety net to purchase more fresh foods.
At the same time, "the need to get our children moving is real," Kass said. He pointed out that "the average American child spends 7.5 hours in front of a screen every day," and only 4% of lower schools, 8% of middle schools and just 2% of high schools offer daily PE classes.
Let's Move! has enjoyed the support of a spate of celebrity sports stars, from Olympians to NFL and NBA players, and achieved a landmark goal last year of having 1.7 million citizens complete the Presidential Active Lifestyle Award. There is more ahead, Kass said.
"We will continue to drive toward some major announcements in the months to come," Kass said.
Kass also addressed food deserts. Eradicating all US food deserts by 2017 is one of Mrs. Obama's more ambitious pledges for the Let's Move! campaign. But the New York Times recently ran a front-page story about two new food desert studies, and the overall conclusion of the piece was that food deserts are as mythical as unicorns.
"I know that the need to bring healthy, affordable food into every community is real," Kass said. "We have studied the science and have seen it with our own eyes from Philadelphia to Chicago to California."
At the end of the day, Kass said, though the White House "embraces" the criticism, and incorporates it, the First Lady is immune to it all, something she has herself said in the past.
"One of the many things I admire about her is how forward thinking she is," Kass said. "She doesn't get caught up in the day-to-day controversies or criticism...In every meeting the focus is on substance, impact, and sustainability of the strategies and collaborations we are forging."
The First Lady's commitment has no end-point, Kass said, nor does his own.
"We all are dedicating the rest our our lives to the health and well being of the next generation."
Kass noted some of the larger private-sector commitments during his remarks, pointing to pledges for multi-year initiatives from Walmart and other grocers to build or revamp locations in food deserts; from Hyatt Hotels and Resorts to change its menus offerings; and from Darden Restaurants, Inc, which promised to revamp both kids and adult menus. The company's brands, including Red Lobster and Olive Garden, serve more than 400 million meals weekly in the US and Puerto Rico.
Obesity and smoking...
As for the future of Let's Move!, Kass reminded the crowd that tobacco and food are in no way comparable. Kass did not mention any outlets by name, but USA Today is one of many media entities that have recently run stories asserting that obesity interventions should be similar to America's anti-tobacco efforts, which relied on interventions that have included legislating the social isolation of smokers. No way, said Kass.
"Ending childhood obesity is not like eradicating smoking," Kass said. "The policy interventions that were used to reduce tobacco use, which rested on demonizing smoking, don't make sense when it comes to obesity, or food. You don't have to smoke to live, but you do have to live to eat."
Food, Kass said, is about far more than "mere sustenance."
"Food is our very identity," Kass said. "It is how we honor family, it is how we remember home. it is about how we honor each other, and how we show love."
"Efforts to demonize food, or reduce the problem to one issue, miss the underlying truth...and diminish our ability to produce permanent, comprehensive change."
Rather than demonizing anything, the Let's Move! campaign has a huge series of components that are designed to address obesity in as many ways as possible, whether for parents, organizations, schools, states, or entire communities, Kass explained. To name just a few, there's Let's Move Faith and Communities for religious and community groups; Let's Move! Outdoors, which encourages the use of federal space for fitness activities; Let's Move Museums and Gardens, which encourages museums, libraries and historic sites to participate in the campaign with exhibits and healthy food offerings in cafeterias; Let's Move in the Clinic for doctors; and Let's Move Indian Country, created specifically for Native Americans.
"The different layers of strategies and outreach platforms are woven together for a common purpose, but have flexibility to work at every level," Kass said.
"The Let's Move! campaign has been designed to empower the country, and allow for individuals and groups to utilize our tools in a away that is most effective for them."
Kass noted that millions of people have now been touched by the campaign, and credited it in part to Mrs. Obama's TV appearances.
"There's nothing quite like seeing the elegant First Lady racing through the halls of the White House with Jimmy Fallon," Kass said, noting one of Mrs. Obama's many TV outings.
He ticked off some of the many success stories since the 2010 launch, and noted that the demand for Mrs. Obama's projects now exceeds the supply. Let's Move Salad Bars to Schools, another private-sector partnership, has now donated more than 1,100 child-sized salad bars to schools across the US, serving more than 625,500 kids. But there are more than 1,200 schools on a waiting list to receive salad bars, in need of raising the $2,500 that each one costs. The American Gardening Association last year handed out 380 grants for community gardens--but had 10,000 applications, he said.
The First Lady appeared by video at the conference, thanking the attendees for all their work, and noting that they have long been engaged in the battle to end child obesity.
“Make no mistake about it. We are truly making a difference here, but we all know that we still have a long way to go,” Mrs. Obama said. “So at this conference, I hope you all will learn from each other and inspire each other.”
After giving personal thanks to the attendees, Kass closed with a call to action.
"Once upon a time, the American Dream included the idea that kids would do better than their parents," Kass said. "They'd be more educated, they'd earn a higher income, they'd be more successful. But today, our youngest generation could be the only one the not only doesn't achieve the American dream, but they might actually live shorter lives than their parents."
"It's not too late to secure the American Dream for the next generation," Kass said. "That's what Let's Move! is."
Sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Weight of the Nation conference is being held through Wednesday at the Omni Shoreham Hotel. Today's sessions targeted multiple areas in obesity policy, including food systems, the built environment, public policy, schools and the workplace. HBO is debuting a multi-part documentary about obesity, also called "Weight of the Nation," next week. It is premiering at the conference.
UPDATE, May 8: The White House released the full transcript of Kass' remarks. Download it here [PDF].
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*Photos by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama