Monday, February 03, 2014

First Lady: Let's Move! Is Creating A 'Cultural Shift' In America That Needs To be 'Cemented'

Mrs. Obama at a White House Let's Move! event
In an interview with Harvard Law Bulletin, the school's famous alumna discusses the accomplishments and challenges of her national campaign...
Washington, DC In an interview in the Winter edition of Harvard Law Bulletin, First Lady Michelle Obama discusses the "cultural shift" that is taking place in America thanks to the successes of her Let's Move! campaign, and says it needs to be "cemented" with much more action.

One of Harvard Law School's most famous alums (President Barack Obama is another), Mrs. Obama graduated in 1988.  She marks the fourth anniversary of the launch of the Let's Move! campaign on Feb. 9th.

While the federal government as well as state and local governments are playing a major role in Let's Move! (there are more than 12 federal agencies involved), Mrs. Obama has been more successful than any other First Lady in history in getting the private sector to make hi-dollar commitments to a signature initiative.  Her partners range from Walmart, Coca-Cola, Subway and other giants of the food industry to Nike and Reebok, as well as all kinds of community and faith-based organizations. 

In her Bulletin interview, Mrs. Obama gives Harvard Law some credit for influencing her approach to her childhood obesity campaign.  Her classes and her work with the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau helped her understand that law and public policy "can improve people’s lives," but that government "is only one player," Mrs. Obama said.

"To effect meaningful change on any issue, we need everyone involved," Mrs. Obama said.  

"That’s why we’ve worked so hard to reach out to people from every sector of society—faith leaders, medical professionals, business executives, educators, parents and more—in our efforts to help our kids grow up healthy." 

President Barack Obama said essentially the same thing in his State of the Union Address as he saluted his wife for working outside of government with Let's Move!, in the midst of pledging to make 2014 his own "Year of Action" to accomplish his goals without a foot-dragging, combative Congress.

"As usual, our First Lady sets a good example," President Obama said.  "Michelle’s Let's Move! partnership with schools, businesses, local leaders has helped bring down childhood obesity rates for the first time in 30 years." 

The current edition of the Bulletin is devoted to food, because Harvard Law says it "has created a new focus on food law" because "more and more people" are concerned about the implications for "our health, the economy, the environment, social justice, and even national security."  Not to mention that one of its most famous alums has made healthy eating her signature initiative, and pledges in her interview to make Let's Move! a lifelong project.

"For me, this effort won’t be limited to my husband’s time in office—this will be a lifelong passion and commitment," Mrs. Obama said.

Mrs. Obama was interviewed by Bulletin reporter Elaine McArdle.  Published twice yearly, the publication has a circulation of approximately 37,000 readers worldwide, including HLS alumni, students, faculty and staff, according to its website. 

The full Q& A is reprinted below.  It is titled "Victory Gardener."

Bulletin: Did your training at Harvard Law School influence your interest in or approach to this issue?


Michelle Obama: Both my classes and my time at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau helped me understand how law and policy—properly understood and applied—can improve people’s lives, and I think my work with Let’s Move! is a good example of this. But my time at the Legal Aid Bureau also taught me—and my work with Let’s Move! has reaffirmed this lesson—that government is only one player. To effect meaningful change on any issue, we need everyone involved. That’s why we’ve worked so hard to reach out to people from every sector of society—faith leaders, medical professionals, business executives, educators, parents and more—in our efforts to help our kids grow up healthy.

Bulletin: Why is there so much interest today, at this point in history, in issues around food and our food systems?

Michelle Obama: The way we live and eat has changed drastically over the last 30 years. We eat fewer home-cooked meals and our portion sizes have gotten larger and larger. As a result, we’ve seen an increase in obesity and its associated health risks, such as diabetes and heart disease. Poor diet is now the number one cause of preventable death and disease in this country.

As diet-related health problems have become more common, more and more people have started paying attention to what they’re eating, and they’re asking for healthier products in stores and at restaurants. Companies are adjusting their offerings to include healthier options.  Restaurants and schools are implementing farm-to-table and farm-to-school programs to incorporate locally grown produce and products within their menu items. This not only helps those local farmers, ranchers, and food processors and manufacturers; it also helps customers and students understand where their food comes from.

Bulletin: What are the biggest victories your work has achieved so far?


Michelle Obama: In launching Let’s Move!, we took what felt like an insurmountable problem and gave folks a sense of optimism and hope that we could solve it. And now, as we’ve seen from new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we’re actually experiencing a decline in childhood obesity rates, so we know we’re on the right track.

Already, big businesses, governors and mayors, museums and gardens, and even the Department of Defense have gotten involved. For example, Walmart has committed to reducing the cost of fruits, vegetables and whole grains to make them more affordable for their customers. And they are working with manufacturers of their products to eliminate trans fats and reduce sugar by 10 percent and sodium by 25 percent in their products by 2015.

In addition, there are now more than 60 million people across the country who live in a community that is a Let’s Move! city, town or county, meaning that local officials have committed to promoting healthy eating and physical activity. More than 10,000 child care providers have committed to serving healthy meals and snacks and instilling healthy habits through our Let’s Move! Child Care initiative. Faith leaders are starting wellness ministries and hosting farmers’ markets. The U.S. military is serving healthier food on its bases. And just this year, we launched Let’s Move! Active Schools, which is an effort to get kids moving before, during and after school in order to reintegrate physical activity into their daily lives. Since its launch in February, more than 5,600 schools have already signed up.

We also implemented new school lunch standards to bring healthier meals into our school cafeterias—including more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. And starting next school year, school vending machines and a la carte lines will offer healthier snacks. These changes mean that the hard work parents are doing at home to keep their kids healthy will now be reinforced throughout the school day.

Finally, the media industry and food companies are shifting the way they market food to children. Just recently, Sesame Workshop and the Produce Marketing Association came together in a two-year agreement that allows fruit and vegetable growers, suppliers, and retailers to use images of Sesame Street characters to market their products without paying a licensing fee. Soon, parents will see Big Bird, Elmo, Rosita, and other characters their kids love plastered up and down the produce aisle. This is a huge deal, because studies show that simply pasting an Elmo sticker on an apple or a piece of broccoli can dramatically increase kids’ interest in eating these healthy foods.

Bulletin: Have there been any particular challenges that you did not anticipate? If so, how have you responded to them?

Michelle Obama: We all know change isn’t easy, but we also know that we need to take risks if we want to see real results. Fortunately, businesses now realize this. They’re now seeing that taking short-term risks—like offering healthier products—can lead to a long-term payoff, especially now that healthier eating is becoming the new normal for many of our kids.

To encourage this type of change, we held a White House Convening on Food Marketing to Children in September. At that convening, I reminded food, beverage, and media companies that great American companies have always acted boldly, innovated, and taken risks. It wasn’t that long ago that “going green” and taking your business online were considered risky endeavors. However, companies that saw where the future was headed and took that leap have been rewarded.

I said that mindful that companies must be profitable in order to survive, and that those profits keep our economy going every day. However, the fact is that marketing nutritious foods to our kids isn’t just good for our kids’ health; it can also be good for companies’ bottom lines. For example, Birds Eye Vegetables launched a major marketing campaign featuring characters from the popular kids show “iCarly,” and their sales jumped 20 percent in just two months.

Bulletin: And have there been pleasant surprises along the way—e.g., partners or supporters whom you did not expect?

Michelle Obama: Back when we first started Let’s Move!, I worried about how much we could actually accomplish. The problem of childhood obesity was so complex, the statistics were staggering, and so many people were skeptical about our chances to make real change. However, I’m happy to say that we’re now seeing results that we could never have imagined back when we were starting out.

For example, now when you turn on the television, instead of seeing nothing but ads for greasy, fried foods, you’ll see fast-food ads for egg white breakfast sandwiches and chicken wraps bursting with lettuce. And now when you sit down for a meal at Red Lobster or Olive Garden, you’ll find kids menus filled not just with nuggets, fries, and soda, but with fruits and veggies, whole grains, and low-fat milk.

I’ve also been inspired by how companies aren’t just making changes on their own; they’re also joining together with their competitors to promote healthier choices. For example, as part of a new Drink Up initiative, more than a dozen competing companies have come together to encourage people to drink more water. And Nike and Reebok are part of our Let’s Move! Active Schools effort to get physical activity back into schools. These are fierce competitors all working together for our children’s health.

Finally, in the beginning, there were some doubts as to whether kids would really embrace healthy eating. But everywhere I go, I’m amazed at how excited they are to try new fruits and vegetables. And it’s remarkable to see schools growing gardens and installing salad bars and replacing fryers with steamers to prepare healthier options for their students. I can’t tell you how many stories we’ve heard about kids who worked in a garden at their school and then came home and requested vegetables for a snack. Or, they saw a cooking demonstration in their cafeteria, and that night they asked their parents to bake their dinner instead of frying it. 

These are the kinds of changes I was hoping for, and as I hear more and more stories like these, I feel more and more hopeful about the future.

Bulletin: What is your biggest goal to achieve in this work over the next three years, before President Obama leaves office?

Michelle Obama: My goal is to keep moving this initiative forward so we can really cement the cultural shift that is taking place. Right now, we’re truly at a pivotal moment—a tipping point when the message is beginning to break through, when new habits are beginning to take hold, and we’re seeing the very first glimmer of the kind of transformational change that we’re capable of making in this country. 

And if we keep pushing forward, we have the potential to transform the health of an entire generation of young people. So we can’t stop now—we need to double down on our efforts over the next three years and continue to work together to help kids all across America grow up healthy and fulfill their boundless potentials. And for me, this effort won’t be limited to my husband’s time in office—this will be a lifelong passion and commitment.


*Photo by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama