Clinton, Mississippi -With the national rate of childhood obesity stubbornly unchanged at about 17% since she launched Let's Move! in 2010, First Lady Michelle Obama on Wednesday traveled to the deep south to celebrate the third anniversary of her campaign. In a little town a dozen miles from the state capitol, Mrs. Obama saluted state and local leaders for their years-long efforts to relieve Mississippi of the dubious distinction of being the fattest state in the nation. (At top, the First Lady with Rachael Ray)
She said the state's programs can be replicated across the nation, and declared that "now is truly the time to double down" in efforts to eradicate child obesity.
"What’s happening here in Mississippi is really what Let's Move! is all about," Mrs. Obama said. "It’s the story we want to be telling in every state all across this country."
Accompanied by Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives Sam Kass and celebrity chef Rachael Ray at the Northside/Eastside Elementary Schools, Mrs. Obama, clad in a pink-striped cardigan and black slacks, congratulated the crowd of cheering, camera-phone wielding adults gathered in the auditorium before heading off to film the "Let's Move! Cafeteria Cook-Off," a school lunch showdown between professional and school chefs.
Mississippi, the First Lady said, has seen "a 13 percent" drop in childhood obesity rates since she first visited in 2010, one month after launching her campaign, which seeks to reduce the national rate of child obesity to just 5% by 2030.
That 13.3% reduction, she said "means that tens of thousands of children here in Mississippi are getting the healthy start to their lives that they need."
Mrs. Obama has repeated the statistic during interviews in her media blitz ahead of the tour. The 13.3% drop is for white children in grades K-5, and occurred over six years between Spring 2005, when Mississippi's rate was 43%, and Spring 2011, when it was reported at 37.3%, according to a September 2012 report released by the Center for Mississippi Health Policy.
It is a hard-won victory, and Mrs. Obama ticked off some of the state's aggressive actions, hailing schools for launching fitness programs and offering healthier foods--more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, lean meats--and low-sugar beverages in cafeterias.
"Halleujah," Mrs. Obama proclaimed about a ban on fryolators.
The state's school mandates began in 2007, when the legislature passed the Healthy Students Act. That's well before the launch of the Department of Agriculture's national school nutrition standards that are included in the legislative centerpiece of Let's Move!, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act 2010, which Mrs. Obama championed as it moved through Congress.
The Clinton School District, with 4,572 students enrolled K-12, has been especially aggressive with child health projects, according to the White House, making the health and wellness of its students and employees one of the district’s top five strategic plan goals in 2011. The work has gone beyond schools: Some churches have declared "no-fry" zones for their congregations, Mrs. Obama said, where only healthy food is served.
The First Lady noted that obesity rates have dropped in Philadelphia and Manhattan, and the state of California, but Mississippi, she said, can be a model for America.
"There’s no reason why this success can’t happen in cities and states all across the country -- if we’re willing to work for it," Mrs. Obama said. "Now is the time for us to truly double down on these efforts."
"We know what works. We're seeing it right here. We know how to get results. Now we just need to keep stepping up."
With about 32 million children being fed in the National School Lunch Program, cafeteria professionals are the Special Forces for Mrs. Obama's childhood obesity war. And they got the Hollywood treatment in Clinton: The 'Let's Move! Cafeteria Cook Off' -a duel to create healthy, tasty school lunches--will be broadcast on Rachael Ray Show on March 11. (Above, Mrs. Obama and Ray greet kids in the cafeteria during the duel)
Clinton School District chefs Wendy Robinson and Fannie Collins were paired with professional chefs--Food Network's Sunny Anderson and Top Chef's Ryan Scott--as they did battle to cook a meal using federal nutrition standards--in just thirty minutes.
"I’m particularly proud of all of the school chefs, the food service workers at schools like this one all across this state, and all across this country," Mrs. Obama said, noting that cafeteria pros across America had a huge job to do--"in a matter of months"--to meet the new federal school lunch guidelines.
"These people are on the front lines," Ray said as she also praised the cafeteria chefs. She billed the cook off as "The Iron Chef of Lunch Ladies."
The cook-off took place in the school cafeteria, where Mrs. Obama and Ray were joined by about 400 second-fifth graders, clad in red shirts that matched the red, white and blue balloons that floated from tables laden with bowls of shiny apples. The grand prize: A golden cafeteria tray.
One team created two kinds of fajitas and a fruit smoothie, while the other team made a Sloppy Joe sandwich with turkey and quinoa, fruit salad with a sour cream and honey dressing, and broccoli trees. Twenty students served as judges, and Mrs. Obama and Ray sampled the lunches and noted that they were delicious. The kids, Mrs. Obama said, are "lucky" to have such talented chefs. (Above: Mrs. Obama and Ray chat with students)
At the First Lady's behest, Ray did a cartwheel for the kids during a break in the filming. The kids reciprocated, showing off their dance moves. A longtime supporter of the First Lady's campaign, Ray has starred in a White House Let's Move! video, and Mrs. Obama has appeared on her talk show four times.
Mrs. Obama hosted a similar school lunch cook-off last year during her second anniversary tour in Dallas, emceed by Sam Kass and Top Chef's Tom Colicchio. Top Chef competitors were paired with Dallas Cowboys players as sous chefs, and joined by kid chefs for the duel.
A video of the cook-off:
Mrs. Obama did interviews with local media outlets before departing Clinton, flying to her hometown of Chicago where she remained overnight.
On Thursday her tour continues in the Windy City, with a morning event that promotes more physical activity in schools. The First Lady will be joined by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Olympic gymnasts and tennis star Serena Williams. Later in the day, Mrs. Obama will discuss healthier food choices at a Walmart store in Springfield, Missouri. The company in 2011 made a five-year commitment to the Let's Move! campaign that included lowering prices on produce, building stores in areas identified by USDA as "food deserts," and reducing sugar, fat, and salt content in private-label foods.
*The transcript of the First Ladys remarks. The White House press release about the event, which was called "Change is Happening."
*CLICK HERE for links to all posts about the third anniversary of Let's Move!.
*Top and third photos by Lawrence Jackson/White House; others by pool