First Lady Takes Aim At Childhood Obesity

First lady Michelle Obama launched Tuesday a nationwide campaign to fight childhood obesity, calling for more exercise for kids and healthier food in schools. She was joined by members of the president's Cabinet, as well as media, sports, entertainment and business leaders.

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President Obama signed an executive order today aimed at combating what he said is one of the most urgent health problems the nation faces: childhood obesity. Leading the effort will be first lady Michelle Obama. Today she launched a new campaign called Let's Move.

As NPR's Allison Aubrey reports, the goal is to nudge families and communities toward healthier choices.

ALLISON AUBREY: The statistics may be disturbing: one in three children in the nation are overweight or obese. But the first lady says the reality is this: obesity is not a disease that's waiting for a cure. We already know the cure.

Ms. MICHELLE OBAMA (First Lady): This isn't like putting a man on the moon or inventing the Internet. It doesn't take a stroke of genius or a feat of technology. We have everything we need right now to help our kids lead healthy lives.

AUBREY: Except perhaps for about $10 billion to help make school lunches healthier and more affordable over the next decade. That's part of what Michelle Obama would like to see. Also, how about more sidewalks, playgrounds and afterschool facilities that can help kids get active?

There are also ideas for new tax incentives and special financing to bring healthy produce to so-called food deserts; those are communities lacking big grocery stores.

The first lady foresees a wave of efforts and community initiatives. In explaining them today, she didn't take the stage alone. There were lots of kids on hand.

Ms. OBAMA: We want you here because this is really about all of you.

AUBREY: And at one point, she recognized a team of 11 and 12-year-old football champions from D.C., the Watkins Hornets.

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. OBAMA: Congratulations, you guys. You guys can sit. We're almost done.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. OBAMA: Hang in there. Just think, you could be in school.

(Soundbite of laughter)

AUBREY: School is where many of the Let's Move initiatives are likely to begin. Michelle Obama asked the adults in the audience to think back to when they were kids.

Ms. OBAMA: You remember how at school we had to have recess? Had to have it and you had to have gym. And we spent hours running around outside when school got out. You couldn't even go inside until it was time for dinner.

AUBREY: Michelle Obama says this isn't about turning the clock back. She hopes the Let's Move campaign will make people stop and think about how we've become a more sedentary society, incrementally over the past three decades.

The mayor of Hernando, Mississippi, Chip Johnson, joined her for the rollout of the campaign. He says the economic toll of obesity cannot be overstated.

Mayor CHIP JOHNSON (Hernando, Mississippi): Just in my little state, right now, we are spending $982 million a year, almost a billion dollars a year on obesity-related illnesses.

AUBREY: But Johnson says his town is now trying lots of new things to push back, including a new community garden, more youth sports leagues and mandating sidewalks in all new and redeveloped neighborhoods.

Mayor JOHNSON: We have miles and miles of sidewalks in our town now that were paid for by the developers and not out of tax dollars. Those type of policies work.

AUBREY: The first lady was quick to point out that she knows government policies are just part of the equation here. She announced a partnership with Disney to help spread the message. And she acknowledged a commitment by large beverage makers, including Pepsi, to support Let's Move initiatives. But it was also clear in her message today that she thinks the big players here are parents.

Ms. OBAMA: They know their kids' health is their responsibility but they feel like it's completely out of their control.

AUBREY: The challenge is to help them see that it's not by giving them the resources and the information they need. And that's the point of the executive order the president signed today. Within 90 days, his task force will report back with some concrete plans to carry out the campaign against obesity.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington.

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