Checking Up On Michelle Obama's Anti-Obesity Effort

First lady Michelle Obama promotes the Let's Move! campaign and the  NFL's Play 60 anti-obesity initiative on Sept. 8 in New Orleans.

hide captionFirst lady Michelle Obama promotes the Let's Move! campaign and the NFL's Play 60 anti-obesity initiative on Sept. 8 in New Orleans.

Gerald Herbert/AP

First lady Michelle Obama is spending the week promoting the first anniversary of her Let's Move! initiative. Her goal is to solve the problem of childhood obesity within a generation.

The idea of a sustained project for the first lady started in the early 1960s.

"It was Jacqueline Kennedy's work on refurbishing the White House, and that sort of set a bar early on," says Myra Gutin of Rider University in New Jersey, who studies the history of first ladies. "First ladies generally are dealing with less controversial or uncontroversial issues, but those which tend to benefit many people in the country."

Lady Bird Johnson focused on highway beautification. Rosalynn Carter addressed mental health. Barbara Bush took on literacy. And in that respect, Gutin says, the Let's Move! initiative is right in line with what others have done.

But Gutin says Michelle Obama goes further than her predecessors: "She has partners from Major League Baseball to Wal-Mart, and no other first lady initiative that I can think of had that kind of support from the corporate world."

Last month, the first lady said she was "thrilled" as she joined Wal-Mart executives to announce that the grocery chain will reduce sugar, sodium and trans fats in thousands of its products. The month before that, she persuaded Congress to pass a $4.5 billion child nutrition bill.

Michelle Obama harvests sweet potatoes with local fifth-graders from Bancroft Elementary as they participate in the White House Kitchen Garden Fall Harvest on Oct. 20. i i

hide captionMichelle Obama harvests sweet potatoes with local fifth-graders from Bancroft Elementary as they participate in the White House Kitchen Garden Fall Harvest on Oct. 20.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Michelle Obama harvests sweet potatoes with local fifth-graders from Bancroft Elementary as they participate in the White House Kitchen Garden Fall Harvest on Oct. 20.

Michelle Obama harvests sweet potatoes with local fifth-graders from Bancroft Elementary as they participate in the White House Kitchen Garden Fall Harvest on Oct. 20.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

At the signing ceremony, the president credited his wife with giving the bill the urgency it needed to become a law.

"Had I not been able to get this passed," President Obama said, "I would be sleeping on the couch."

Into The Mainstream

Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, says the first lady has moved what used to be a niche movement into the mainstream.

"There's no question that there are enormous changes taking place in school lunches," Nestle says. "You can see that all over the country, where schools everywhere are trying to do something to improve the quality of the food that they're serving to children. So this is having an immediate impact."

The first lady rarely misses an opportunity to plug the program. Guests who are invited to the White House for a meal will often read that ingredients on the menu come from the White House garden. Even the president's Super Bowl party included — on top of the kielbasa and buffalo wings — White House honey ale.

Michelle Obama held conference calls Tuesday to thank mayors, school officials and medical professionals who have been involved in the program.

"It's pretty amazing, for me at least, to look back and see how far we've come," she said.

Surgeon General Regina Benjamin said there is no greater challenge to the country's health than obesity. "Since 1980," she said, "obesity rates have doubled in adults and more than tripled in children, and the problem is even worse among black, Hispanic and Native American children."

An Overreach?

It helps that kids' nutrition has historically been a bipartisan issue. Five years ago, Democrat Bill Clinton and Republican Mike Huckabee teamed up on a childhood obesity program.

But now that the White House is steering the ship, some Republicans have jumped overboard.

Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin have all attacked Michelle Obama's program directly.

"Instead of a government thinking that they need to take over [and] make decisions for us according to some politician or politician's wife's priorities — just leave us alone. Get off our back," Palin has said.

During the Super Bowl telecast, viewers in Washington, D.C., saw an ad against a proposed soda tax that struck a similar tone — without mentioning Obama's program specifically.

"Give me a break. I can decide what to buy without government help," the woman in the ad says. "The government is just getting too involved in our personal lives."

While critics accuse the program of being too heavy-handed, many of these changes come from agreements, rather than regulations. No surprise: The first lady favors carrots over sticks — and also carrots over Twinkies.

Now that her team has made advances getting healthier foods into public schools and grocery stores, they are working on the next frontier: more nutritious options in restaurants.

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