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Michelle Obama: Team Effort Needed to Halt Childhood Obesity

February 9, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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In an interview with Jim Lehrer, first lady Michelle Obama said it's critically important for the future of the country to bring childhood obesity under control and encourage more physical fitness.

JIM LEHRER: And to our interview with the first lady. I spoke with her this afternoon at her office in the East Wing of the White House.

Mrs. Obama, welcome.

FIRST LADY MICHELLE OBAMA: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

JIM LEHRER: Why did you choose childhood obesity as your major project?

MICHELLE OBAMA: I think I connected with it as a mother because I remember so clearly life before the White House, and it was a life that most working parents are dealing with, where you’re juggling jobs and trying to get kids to and from and you’re trying to make life easier. You’re eating out more and you’re probably moving less because you’re carpooling and you’re sitting and kids are watching TV and as a result of this lifestyle, this busy, hectic lifestyle, my pediatrician pointed out some changes in my kids’ body mass index that he just sort of checked us on. And I hadn’t even thought about it – hadn’t thought about our lifestyle. But the beauty of that situation, for me, was that I made some pretty minor changes over the period of months, and saw what the doctor said were pretty remarkable changes, that he usually didn’t see in his practice, which is a predominantly African-American, urban practice.

So he was pretty floored by how quickly you could turn the tide on this issue with – by just removing juices from lunchboxes and cooking a little bit more, maybe one or two more meals, turning the TV off a little bit more, limiting desserts to the weekends. I mean these were really not major lifestyle overhauls. So when I came here, I thought, if it can be that simple, it’s all about lack of information and lack of focus on the issue. So I wanted to use the first lady spotlight to shine the light on this issue for many families that are struggling with this issue.

JIM LEHRER: Did you consider other causes? Something more related, say, or directly related to the recession, unemployment, that sort of thing?

MICHELLE OBAMA: Well, there have been several issues that I’ve developed over the course of my first year. Children’s health and nutrition is one; with planting the garden – that was really sort of laying the foundation and using that year to learn more. But I have and will continue to focus on supporting our military families; national service will continue to be something that I’m promoting around the country.

So I’m still multitasking. It’s really with childhood obesity that we saw an opportunity to really launch a major initiative that we thought could move the ball. So a lot of this effort results from the belief that this is something that we can do something about.

JIM LEHRER: Do you feel that because you have made the decision to do it and you’re going to get involved in this that you really can change where the trends are, all the things that you have lamented and others have lamented, that are going on among young people?

MICHELLE OBAMA: Well, I know I can’t do it alone and the solutions are not going to come from any one single solution. But I do have the platform to lead an effort to pull all of these resources together and, again, shine a spotlight on this issue in a way that I couldn’t do as a regular mom on the South Side of Chicago.

So I don’t think that me alone will solve this, but I think if we’re working with the governors and mayors all across the city, highlighting important initiatives; if we’ve got our pediatricians, the American Academy of Pediatrics working to improve their practices around this issue; we’ve got the school lunch providers that are on board; athletes and the entertainment industry engaged, as well as elected officials in Congress and around the nation that, yes, if we’re working with parents who ultimately have the responsibility that we can move the ball.

JIM LEHRER: What about this word, “obesity”? It’s been suggested that that’s a very accusatory, negative word. It’s not a comforting word at all.

MICHELLE OBAMA: No, not at all.

JIM LEHRER: Do you use it that way when you –

MICHELLE OBAMA: Well, you use it to describe the issue because the trends are obesity-related trends: 30 percent, or one in three of our kids, are overweight or obese; that’s a real statistic. So it’s a real word that’s important to describe the problem. We’re spending over $140 billion a year on this country dealing with obesity-related illnesses like heart disease and cancer and type II diabetes.

So you have to use the word to talk about the reality of the situation. But I agree; this isn’t about looks. And it’s not about weight. It’s about how our kids feel. And those are really the implications of the problem and the words that tell a fuller picture of the challenges that we face; you know, kids struggling in ways that they didn’t a generation ago.

JIM LEHRER: In your announcement earlier today in the state dining room, you made a point that the parents are going to have – if anything is going to happen, the parents are going to have to take control of this. How can you get that message over without appearing to be a scold of some kind, to point fingers and use this word “obesity” in a negative way?

MICHELLE OBAMA: Well, you know, a lot of it is tone and showing a level of understanding of how we got here. And all parents, including me, care about our kids. And we want to do the right things for them at all times. And we have to start with that assumption, that parents aren’t deliberately making bad choices; they’re making the choices that they can under the circumstances.

And I think we have to approach this issue understanding that – not just with regard to parents, but with regard to our kids – you know, we have to understand that they didn’t create this problem for themselves either. But we have to be realistic about how we got here in order to figure out how to solve it.

And parents cannot do it alone. That’s one thing – because it’s one thing to identify a problem for parents and then just sort of leave them all alone to figure it out and they don’t know why or how and the information is so confusing.

So we have to give them the tools and the information that they need to make better decisions. We can’t just point a finger. And we certainly can’t ask parents who are living in the midst of food deserts without the resources to buy the products and the items for their families, we definitely can’t put them into that trick bag of telling them that they need to do something that is completely out of their reach.

So this initiative has to deal with talking to parents in a way that makes sense, eliminating the accessibility and affordability issues in this country so that when we start talking about solutions, they are solutions that all families can access – and not just the lucky few.

JIM LEHRER: There are all kinds of things on your list of things that need to be done. And one of them caught my eye, which is to eliminate – as best that can be done – sugary foods, bad foods from vending machines so kids in school can’t – how in the world are you going to accomplish that?

MICHELLE OBAMA: Well, we – again, this isn’t something that schools can do alone or parents; they have to have the support of the –

JIM LEHRER: They’re not doing it now, are they?

MICHELLE OBAMA: Well, we have work to do. But today I also announced that we are getting some unprecedented cooperation from these school food suppliers, who are ready to step up and play a role in figuring out how do you change the quality of food in the schools.

The beverage industry today just announced that they’re going to change their labels on soft drinks, not just the ones in stores, but ones in vending machines. So you know, the goal is to reach out to the industries that have a role to play and have them come up with solutions that make sense.

This isn’t about demonizing any industry or any – it’s not about demonizing parents and it’s not about demonizing businesses. It’s just saying we know there’s a problem; let’s figure out what we can change, what’s within our control, and who’s willing to step up, who can’t, for whatever reason, and we can move the ball. Again, this isn’t about moving the ball 100 percent, because 20 percent worth of changes can change the nature of the statistics in some pretty meaningful ways.

JIM LEHRER: And do you – when this is all said and done, when the legacy of Michelle Obama, first lady of the land, is written, do you want it to say something about – is it very important to you that it say something about this issue of childhood obesity?

MICHELLE OBAMA: This issue is critically important to me because it’s critically important to the health and success of our kids, and of this nation, ultimately. And if I can play a role in helping move us forward on this issue even a small bit, I will be proud and happy. But this isn’t about my legacy, you know. I could care less if my name is ever mentioned in 10 or 20 years, if we’re looking back on a healthier generation.

For me, I look at the faces of my kids and I think about the future that is going to await them and whether they’re going to not just have the financial resources to be prepared for the challenge, but whether they’re going to have the strength and the stamina to live healthier, longer lives so that they can see their kids and grandkids. That’s the legacy I hope to see, and it can have nothing to do with me and I’d be perfectly happy.

JIM LEHRER: How involved are you going to be in this cause?

MICHELLE OBAMA: I’m going to spend a lot of time. I’m going to be visiting schools – and I have over the years. It’s really, you know, again, this is an official launch. Let’s Move is now, you know, a name that’s connected to an effort. But I’m going to continue to work in the garden and get children engaged.

I’m going to be visiting schools around this country that are meeting the healthy school challenge to highlight the work that they’ve done. I’ve already taped a public service announcement that will air in connection with NBC. I’ve appeared on “Sesame Street.” I will go wherever I need to go to help spread the word. So I’m committed to this.

JIM LEHRER: And finally, I assume the president is onboard with you on this and he’s going to knock some heads for you within the federal government?

MICHELLE OBAMA: Well, today, he signed a memorandum creating the first ever federal taskforce on childhood obesity, and that was a pretty major step. That memorandum is going to urge several key agencies to focus, for the next 90 days, on coming up with a long-term plan and some concrete benchmarks to get us on a long-term path. So yes, he’s onboard and I’m happy to have his help.

JIM LEHRER: Well, Mrs. Obama, thank you very much and good luck.

MICHELLE OBAMA: Thank you, thank you. Thanks for taking the time to focus on this.