‘Let’s Move’ Campaign Turns One, Forgoes Cake

BY Beth Summers  February 9, 2011 at 11:31 AM EST

One year ago today, first lady Michelle Obama sat down with the NewsHour’s Jim Lehrer to discuss the launch of her new “Let’s Move” campaign to tackle childhood obesity.

Photo at right: Michelle Obama at a “Let’s Move” event in May (AFP/Getty Images)

“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,” she said. “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.”

To mark the first anniversary, a seemingly proud and happy Mrs. Obama touted her program’s ongoing success with a string of television interviews and public events. Meanwhile, we got one food expert’s take on the progress made in the past year, the scope of the problem, and the complicated roles played by corporations and politics in the quest for a healthier America.

Dr. Marion Nestle is a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, and
author of the book “Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health”.

What did the first lady’s “Let’s Move” campaign set out to accomplish in its first year? Where has it succeeded, and where has it fallen short?

Dr. Marion Nestle: The first lady said she was going to make childhood obesity the focus of her time in non-office. Some first ladies plant flowers; Michelle Obama decided she would concentrate on childhood obesity. I thought that was a good idea.

The two particular ideas she decided to focus on were school food and getting supermarkets into inner cities. There are lots of changes going on in both of these areas, either because of what she did or because they would have happened anyway.

The supermarket part of it obviously takes longer, but certainly it’s on everybody’s agenda. If nothing else, Michelle Obama brought attention to childhood obesity like it has never gotten before, and she selected two areas that were both doable. You can get supermarkets into inner cities and you can change food in schools. And it will make a big difference. Is it going to fix childhood obesity? Of course not. But it’s a step in that direction.

That is what has been happening publicly. Behind the scenes, the first lady started working with food companies to see if they would agree to cut down on their marketing to kids and change some of their products. There has been pressure on these companies before, but never at this high of a level. A lot of what has been done behind the scenes over the course of the past year culminated in Wal-Mart’s decision of a couple weeks ago that it would work with the first lady and pledge to change some of their food practices, which is good, bad, or indifferent, depending on how you look at it.

Explain what you call “the politics of food.” Why are you are skeptical that food companies will follow through with promises to change they way they do business?

Dr. Marion Nestle: Because they can’t follow through. They have Wall Street to deal with, and stock holders. The politics of food has to do with the fact that food companies need to make money. Their job is to sell more food and not less. If we are going to do something about obesity, we have to get people to move more and eat less. Makers of junk food don’t like that. It’s bad for business. And that puts them in a difficult position.

We don’t know what they’re going to do next. We know what they promised. Food companies have a long history of making promises. It’s a matter of who holds them accountable. The first lady has no legislative authority. She has only moral authority.

Some critics of Mrs. Obama’s initiative have expressed concern that the government is getting too involved in what parents should be feeding their families. How do you see it?

Dr. Marion Nestle: The government is already involved in what parents feed their children. We have all kinds of rules and regulations in place already. This is not anything newly complicated or different; all it is doing is tweaking the existing system.

What’s next for the “Let’s Move” campaign?

Dr. Marion Nestle: This week it was announced that the campaign is going to do new things including beginning working with restaurants. I think these are all good things to ask for, but it’s a lot. Progress moves slowly. I like what the first lady is trying to do. But she can only do so much.