As Michelle Obama’s Anti-Obesity Push Turns 2, It’s Time for a Check-Up

BY Jason Kane and Saskia Chanoine  February 9, 2012 at 6:13 PM EST

John Cassidy, who holds Guinness World Records for several balloon-related tricks, performs a balloon act for first lady Michelle Obama in the Diplomatic Reception Room. White House photo by Chuck Kennedy.

Michelle Obama may be spending her time these days dancing with Ellen and racing Jimmy Fallon through the White House, but all the fun began with a much more serious moment: “My pediatrician pointed out some changes in my kids’ body mass index that he just sort of checked us on.”

As the first lady told Jim Lehrer two years ago when her signature “Let’s Move!” campaign launched, the typical American lifestyle got the best of the Obama family in their pre-White House days. “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.”

That’s why the mother who once allowed her family to indulge in too much television and junk food became the national spokeswoman for nutrition and exercise: She knows how easy it is to lose control and what it takes for an entire family to get back on track. Two years after she launched a campaign against childhood obesity, it’s time to take stock of the progress in implementing those same principles on a national scale.

But first, it’s worth a look back to the very beginning. Watch Jim Lehrer’s full interview here:

By many markers, Mrs. Obama’s simple goal “to shine a spotlight on this issue in a way that I couldn’t do as a regular mom on the South Side of Chicago” has far exceeded expectations.

National legislation has changed the face of school lunches for 32 million children. Walgreens, Wal-Mart and a number of other chains have agreed to build 1,500 stores in food deserts in the coming years, bringing 9.5 million more Americans better access to fresh and healthy foods. More than 5,700 groups have partnered with the USDA to spread the word about the new MyPlate food-selection diagram and get simple nutritional information to families across the country.

In a recent survey by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, more than eight out of 10 Americans say they have heard of “Let’s Move!” Thirty five percent say they’ve heard a lot about it.

But the backlash has been plentiful, too. Some say “Let’s Move!” is just another excuse for the Obama administration to meddle in the everyday decisions of Americans. Others criticize the links to Wal-Mart or worry that the emphasis on obesity could damage the self-esteem of American youth.

But some of the strongest resistance is coming from American children and adolescents themselves. When Brandi Thompson’s Mississippi high school removed the deep-fried chicken and pork chops from the lunch menu and replaced them with potatoes that are baked instead of cooked in fat, the move didn’t sit well.

“I understand the part about us being healthy, but the food they cook, we don’t eat, because everybody can’t cooked baked food the same. And it just don’t taste right,” she told health correspondent Betty Ann Bowser shortly after the initiative started.

Blogger Eddie Gehman Kohan has covered every twist, turn and shake of Let’s Move! for the past two years on her Obama Foodorama blog. She’s currently traveling with the first lady on a national tour to celebrate the anniversary. But she separated from the press pack for a few moments to answer our top questions on this massive program and its efforts to slim down America’s youth.

health.jpgWhat have been some of the major milestones in the past two years — the indications that this thing is making a difference?

Gehman Kohan: Well broadly, for any first lady who has had a “first lady campaign,” she is the only one to have such huge private-sector commitments. It’s really an astonishing series of commitments that she’s gotten from the private sector, where they’re really serious and largely scaled and can impact millions of people. There’s a commitment from Darden Restaurants — which owns chains like Olive Garden and Red Lobster — to revamp their children’s menus and some other menu items for the campaign. Of course, there are large-scale commitments from Wal-Mart and Walgreens, which have both agreed to build or revamp stores in what USDA identifies as “food deserts” — places where fresh and healthy foods, primarily produce, are not necessarily available.

And there are a huge number of other private-sector commitments, like from childcare facilities, including YMCA and Bright Horizons. These facilities can help implement early childhood interventions that will help prevent obesity right at the get-go. Mrs. Obama has also made progress with “Let’s Move Faith and Communities,” a subcomponent that brings in religious groups and community groups to participate in “Let’s Move! activities. And the Healthier U.S. Schools Challenge, which is a USDA program that rewards schools for best-case scenarios in nutrition and fitness activities.

How much actual progress has been made so far? Are kids actually getting healthier?

Gehman Kohan: After two years, it’s too early to point to any kind of statistical analysis in a childhood obesity reduction. Kids who are running around and moving and eating better can’t help but be healthier. But most of what has been accomplished is a huge paradigm shift in the public’s awareness of the relationship between food and health. And the coordination has been significant: All of these groups that existed before are now coordinated and mobilized and led by the White House while still operating independently. Clearly, there were plenty of food, gardening, health and physical fitness activities in the U.S. before this. But Mrs. Obama’s efforts with the “Let’s Move!” campaign has really given these groups a focal point while also bringing high-profile attention to the subject as crucially important.

You’ve written in your blog that “observers seem to misunderstand the scope and focus of Let’s Move!” What exactly do you mean by that?

Gehman Kohan: This initiative is generational. It was designed with the intent that children who born in 2010 — when this was launched — will grow up in a very different food culture and a very different physical fitness culture. Take for example one of the long-term components — the school lunch legislation. It is taking a couple of years to roll out, but when children born in 2010 are in kindergarten five years from now, the theory is they’ll be walking into a school fitness and food environment that is profoundly different than the environment experienced by kindergartners today. They will have completely different school lunch standards and hopefully their schools will be focusing on more physical activity. And so the crucial importance of starting children out young is they won’t grow up already suffering from obesity and all the related diseases.

Let’s talk more about school lunches. How is this initiative actually changing policy?

Gehman Kohan: Federal law requires that certain things need to be served or cannot be served in the cafeterias. That’s through the National School Lunch Program and the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Every few years, Congress has to pass what’s called “child nutrition reauthorization,” and so the version that came along during the Let’s Move! campaign, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, is what changed school lunches in the U.S. It’s the first significant change to menus in 15 years, and it’s the first time in about 30 years the government is giving more for the federal reimbursement rate — the amount they pay schools to serve the lunches. It also doubles the amount of fruits and vegetables that will be served on a weekly basis, it requires that water be served, that all milk be low- or nonfat, and that all grains are whole grain. And it sets high and low limits for calories, so portion sizes are controlled, depending on the age of the students being served. These changes impact 32 million children.

Are we seeing that kind of change in terms of school gym programs, in getting kids to actually move in school?

Gehman Kohan: Well the schools that participate in the Healthier U.S. Schools Challenge have improved gym components and physical activity. But generally, physical activity in schools has fallen a lot to the wayside for multiple reasons. Many don’t have the staff to watch the kids on the playground, some have needed to reduce or eliminate PE because they’ve needed the students to study for standardized tests tied to state funding. So this recently passed legislation has a wellness policy but it doesn’t mandate physical activity. More generally, every major sports association has joined in some high-profile way. They’re working in their communities, encouraging after-school programs.

Let’s turn to some of the criticism. Not everyone’s completely happy with the campaign, right?

Gehman Kohan: By far, the Wal-Mart partnership has caused the most criticism. Wal-Mart is a flashpoint for controversy. It has this reputation for putting local businesses out of business when it moves into communities. Some people say Wal-Mart is using the first lady, that the company isn’t serious about its commitment and is just aligning with the first lady because they’re trying to build more stores. Labor didn’t like the Wal-Mart partnership either because it’s a non-union company. Even when Michael Pollan named Mrs. Obama the “Most Powerful Foodie in the World” in Forbes magazine, he said he was worried she was being duped by Wal-Mart and that the company’s pledge to focus on “better-for-you processed foods” was really not what should be going on within the rubric of the campaign – that it should be a total focus on fresh, unprocessed foods.

Has there been much criticism of the broader message?

Gehman Kohan: Let’s Move! has been pointed to by a lot of critics as an example of big government intervening and the Obama administration wanting to expand the role of government to the point that it controls what American citizens eat. For its part, the campaign says it’s about giving people choice and educating them about food and nutrition and physical activity and allowing them to have access to a wide range of choices. There’s also been the concern from a lot of people that focusing on childhood obesity would make children hyper-conscious of their body weight. Mrs. Obama always says, “It’s not about how you look, it’s about how you feel,” which is the ultimate message. But that brings up a tricky subject — there’s no way to end an obesity epidemic if people aren’t losing weight. So this is one of those murky areas of the campaign that is not much discussed.

If the president isn’t re-elected in the fall and this all ends within a year, what’s the implication for that?

Gehman Kohan: Well this three-day trip will actually be the last grand tour if the president doesn’t get re-elected. But Partnership for a Healthier America – a separate nonprofit that was launched in conjunction with the campaign – was founded to ensure that “Let’s Move!” continues on long after Mrs. Obama is not in the White House, whether it’s next year or five years from now. Regardless, she’s so passionate about this subject that I think she’ll continue to work on this issue in some capacity for the rest of her life.