Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Loving Our Children To Death: First Lady Urges Hispanic Activists To Take On Food Corporations

Transforming the marketplace with parent power: "It’s up to us to demand quality, affordable food that is good for our kids," Mrs. Obama says during keynote address at NCLR Conference...
New Orleans, LA -- Delivering an impassioned keynote speech at the National Council of La Raza's Annual Conference, First Lady Michelle Obama on Tuesday urged a crowd of about 1,800 Hispanic activists to take on the food industry and use their massive purchasing power to offer a collective rebuke to companies that make and market unhealthy foods to children.  

Clad in a black dress with a white arrow pattern, Mrs. Obama declared that she is "not a treat hater" and backed up her argument with a long personal tale about her Grandfather's "legendary" barbeque day-long feasts and other memorable food events during her girlhood on the South Side of Chicago, sprinkling her story with references to equivalent unhealthy traditions in the Hispanic community: "In my community, it was mac and cheese at church dinner.  For you, it might have been arroz con gandules."  

Food, she said, is a crucial part of "knitting" communities together and passing on cultural traditions. But today "we know better," Mrs. Obama said.  

"While food might be love, the truth is we are loving ourselves and our kids to death. We need to step up, we need to start questioning the behaviors and beliefs that are making our kids sick."

Child health considerations must replace the nostalgic attachment to long-beloved folk foodways, she said, calling obesity an epidemic that mingles policy, public health, family and community issues.  Indulgent eating could be tolerated in the past, Mrs. Obama said, because it was balanced by eating healthier foods most of the time--which were more readily available, she insisted--and by an environment in which children spent the day outdoors, running and playing.  But life is different in 2013.

"Hispanic neighborhoods have roughly one-third as many chain supermarkets as other communities have," Mrs. Obama said, and added that "compared to white parents, nearly five times more Hispanic parents report that safety is a barrier to their kids being active.  

"And Hispanic kids ages nine to 13 are only half as likely to participate in organized physical activity outside of school."  

It's having "a devastating effect on our children’s health," Mrs. Obama said, noting that "nearly" forty percent of Hispanic children are overweight or obese, and  "nearly 50 percent are on track to develop diabetes."

To make matters worse, Mrs. Obama said, time-crunched parents who work hard to make ends meet are deluged with advertisements for junkfoods.  In 2008, she said, "companies spent well over half a billion dollars on food, beverage and restaurant ads in Latino media markets--many of them for unhealthy products."

"Those of us with kids who have seen our kids begging and pleading for something they saw on TV, we know just how persuasive these ads can be," Mrs. Obama said.  "So we all know that the food industry has some serious work to do when it comes to how they market food to our kids."

La Raza, the largest Hispanic and civil rights advocacy group in the nation, has been terrific at mobilizing its huge base to get into the streets--and onto Capitol Hill--to do battle over issues  impacting the population.  So the First Lady urged the leaders to use the considerable purchasing power of the Latino community--"more than one trillion dollars" each year, she said--to ensure that corporations offer healthier food options and change the practice of marketing unhealthy foods to children.  

"Right now, we have everything we need to reclaim our children’s health," Mrs. Obama said.  

"And that starts by using our power as consumers to hold companies responsible for the food they make and how they market it to our kids."

She repeated the call to empowerment, singing it like a litany:

"Today, a lot of folks don’t have access to fresh food in their communities.  It’s up to us to demand quality, affordable food that is good for our kids."

"Ultimately, we all have the power to decide whether or not to actually buy those foods.  So make no mistake about it, with the choices that you make, you all could completely transform the marketplace.  You all have the power right now, today."

"In the end, we create the demand for these products and it’s up to us to demand quality, affordable food that is good for our kids.  But it’s on us."

Mrs. Obama has previously used the parent-activist economic paradigm when speaking to the grassroots, including during her keynote speech in 2012 as she celebrated the second anniversary of her campaign, when she spoke to a primarily African American audience in Longwood, Florida.  Mrs. Obama employed her "food is love" argument during that address, too.

The White House believes urging consumers to take action is working:  Demand for healthier foods is building, officials say, citing industry food reports that show that lower-calorie products are outperforming less healthy options in the market place, and that fruit and vegetable sales increased last year by 6% combined.

But the First Lady's critics have been disappointed that she has not taken a harder line on the marketing strategies of major food corporations, arguing that parents are unequal to the thrall of costumed characters and superheroes promoting junkfood to children across multi-media platforms.  Last year, according to a federal report, food companies spent a total of $1.79 billion on marketing to children. 

So Mrs. Obama's approach will change in the months ahead, said Let's Move! Executive Director Sam Kass last week during a speech to food industry leaders gathered in Washington, DC, for the Grocery Manufacturers Association Growth and Public Policy Summit.

Marketing to children "is something that the First Lady and Let's Move! are going to be focused on this year," Kass promised.  "We need to not just promote less unhealthy products, but promote healthier products."

Mrs. Obama's address came to an audience that is primed for further action.  The convention included the National Latino Family Expo, "to encourage a healthy lifestyle," which provided activities "that promote good nutrition and exercise."  NCLR’s Comer Bien (Eat Well) Initiative "encourages the work of the First Lady’s Let’s Move! Initiative, and provides access to nutritious food through federal food assistance programs, resources, and nutrition education to Latino parents and their families," the White House said.  "NCLR has been a tremendous advocate and partner on key initiatives like MiPlato (MyPlate) and La Mesa Completa (USDA’s SNAP program)."

The rest of Mrs. Obama's speech was devoted to promoting her husband's healthcare act, which includes components that support Let's Move!, such as the mandate that chain restaurants post calories on menus.

"Simply passing the Affordable Care Act was not the goal," Mrs. Obama said.  "The goal is to get folks to sign up for the insurance so they have the care they need to stay healthy."

The Obama Administration is seeking about 7 million people to sign up for health insurance through marketplaces that are supposed to become available online starting Oct. 1, and more than 2.6 million younger enrollees are needed to keep costs down for the overall pool, the White House has said.

Mrs. Obama emphasized "the need to reach out to our young people" since their participation is key to the law’s success, and nearly one-third of these young people live in California, Texas and Florida, she said.

"So we need to send them to those websites which have all the information they need about health reform," Mrs. Obama said.

After her speech at the Ernest M. Morial Convention Center, Mrs. Obama made an outing not listed on her schedule as released by the White House.  She visited Sterling Farms grocery store in Marrero, a suburb of New Orleans.  Owned by actor Wendell Pierce, one of the stars of HBO series The Wire and Treme.  (Above, Pierce escorts Mrs. Obama through the produce department)

The store is part of Pierce's ongoing effort at community redevelopment following Hurricane Katrina.  It was built to bring affordable healthier food and jobs into an underserved community, and Mrs. Obama discussed food access with Pierce as she strolled the aisles of the store, a previously abandoned Winn Dixie supermarket.

Mrs. Obama was scheduled to return to the White House after her trip to New Orleans.

*The transcript of the First Lady's remarks

CLICK HERE for links to all Let's Move! posts.

*Top photo by Chuck Kennedy/White House; second by Kathleen Flynn, Nola.com /The Times-Picayune