First Lady Launches Fight Against Child Obesity

Tuesday, First Lady Michelle Obama launched her campaign to end childhood obesity. The campaign, titled "Let's Move," will help end what many experts say is an epidemic. Host Michel Martin talks about the first lady's plans with Washington Post reporter Robin Givhan, and Marlene Schwartz, deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, writer Ralph Ellison died before he could complete a successor to his masterpiece, "The Invisible Man." Now two editors have organized and published that unfinished work - "Three Days Before the Shooting." It involved sorting through thousands of pages of rewrites and alternate versions of the same passage. We'll speak with editors Adam Bradley and John Callahan in a few minutes.

But first, a monumental task of a different kind - at the White House yesterday, First Lady Michelle Obama launched her campaign to end childhood obesity. It's called Let's Move. The administration has pledged up to a billion dollars a year over the next decade to fight what many experts are calling an epidemic of childhood obesity. According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly a third of American children are overweight. The CDC also reports that 16 percent of kids are obese and 11 percent are extremely obese.

Robin Givhan reports for the Washington Post and she covered the First Lady's event yesterday and she joins us now to tell us more about it. Also with us is Marlene Schwartz. She's the deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University and she joins us by phone from her home in Guilford, Connecticut. Welcome, ladies. Thank you both for joining us.

Dr.. MARLENE SCHWARTZ (Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, Yale University): Thank you.

Ms. ROBIN GIVHAN (Reporter, Washington Post): Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Marlene, if you would just give us the dimensions of the problem, if you would - what does it mean to be overweight? What does it mean to be obese? And what's the significance of this number of children having this issue?

Dr. SCHWARTZ: Well, the way that overweight and obesity are calculated for children is using something called the body mass index, which is where you take a child's height and weight and you basically plot it along a curve of standardized measures so that you can see compared to other children of the same age and sex where does this child fall. So if you're above the 85th percentile, you're considered overweight, and if you're above the 95th percentile, you're considered obese.

And so the reason why this is so important is that children who are in those upper levels of body mass index are more likely to develop problems such as hypertension, Type-2 diabetes, and other health consequences. So that's why it needs to be taken so seriously.

MARTIN: And there have been a number of efforts over the years to pay attention to kids' health and physical fitness and a variety of ways to do that. Obviously, the success has not been what many people would have hoped, given the numbers that we have now. Do you have a sense about this initiative -whether you think this has the opportunity or the prospect of being successful in ways that other initiatives have not been?

Dr. SCHWARTZ: Well, I'm personally very excited about this initiative because it is the first time that the federal government has really come together and explicitly said we're going to take this issue on. So one of the things that I was most happy to hear about was the idea of pulling together all the different government agencies that have an influence on nutrition and physical activity and having them work together. And you know, as a health professional who's been in the field for while, this feels significantly different than previous administrations, where the focus was really only on personal responsibility.

MARTIN: Robin, tell us more if you would about the event yesterday. Who was there? And what did they have to say and what were some of the stories that you heard at yesterday's event?

Ms. GIVHAN: Well, I mean, the event was shifted somewhat because of the blizzard that was impending. So it really turned into quite a packed affair in the State Dining Room and - at the White House. And it was in front of an audience of lawmakers and medical professionals and grass root activists, but also children were there as well. And, you know, one of the things that was particularly striking was that the East Wing, the First Lady spent a lot of time really sort of doing a drum roll to this event and really sort of raising the stakes and leading people to expect that this is going to be something quite sweeping.

And I think, based on the audience that was invited, one of the things that they really wanted to underscore was the fact that they brought in all these different players who do have an impact on the way that kids eat. And that ranged from the people who are producing the food and beverages that these kids are consuming, the people who have an impact on what's served in schools, the government itself, small town and midsized mayors who were doing things that didn't cost a lot of money, and also folks who were addressing the fact that there was some neighborhoods that simply do not have easy access to healthy food.

MARTIN: I want to hear more about that from Marlene in a minute, but Robin, I wanted to ask about the way this initiative got started. It seemed to have started rather modestly. I mean, the first lady started the garden at the White House, a kitchen garden, kind of a big kitchen garden, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Bigger than my kitchen garden, but...

Ms. GIVHAN: A very impressive kitchen garden.

MARTIN: A very impressive kitchen garden, but still, it was kind of a modest, informal - she invited school kids in to come in, and, you know, help out and they later came back and helped harvest what they had planted and it seemed kind of low key and informal. And this is a very big deal, as you pointed out. It involves like all these different agencies and all these different kind of elements to it.

And I'm wondering if you have any sense of whether the first lady's own thinking evolved in this - from something that, well, this is just something nice to do, to something that became much more comprehensive, or was this part of the plan all along and the idea was just to kind of bring the public along slowly to understand the different elements as she sees it?

Ms. GIVHAN: Well, I think, you know, hindsight is allowed for a little bit of gilding the lily. So I think that if you ask them, they would say that this was the plan all along. And certainly the idea for the garden was intended to be more than just a little vegetable patch. I mean, it really was to start a conversation about getting kids to eat more vegetables and improving the nation's health.

But I do think that her thinking evolved, because over the course of the year she had a chance to sit down with a lot of different people in the Cabinet and for instance listen to what military folks were saying about obesity as a security issue and the fact that so many people are turned away from the military because of obesity.

And it also played a role in the health care debate, in talking about the amount of money - over a $100 billion that, you know, is drained from the economy due to obesity-related health concerns. So I do think as she started talking more and more about the whole issue of healthy eating, she was able to see the many, many different ways in which it had an impact on the economy and on individuals themselves.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the first lady, Michelle Obama's initiative to fight childhood obesity. We're speaking with Washington Post reporter Robin Givhan. She was with the - she was at the White House yesterday for the big announcement about the event. And also Marlene Schwartz. She's deputy director of Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

Marlene, you talked about the fact that to this point we've had a lot of emphasis on personal responsibility, but that there are neighborhoods that are called food deserts, for example, where there really are not a lot of options for buying food, and if you've got limited transportation and things of that sort, then that can make it harder to make the healthy choices that you know you should be making. What role can government policy play in that?

Dr. SCHWARTZ: Well, I think that the government first needs to recognize that there are things that get in the way of people being personally responsible, which I thought Mrs. Obama did a great job yesterday. But I also think that it's important for the government to think about how maybe to use some economic or financial incentives to get companies to move into some of those areas where this food is not yet available and, you know, think of ways developing the businesses in those areas.

MARTIN: And - but what about the personal responsibility aspect of it, Marlene? There are those who, as you know - I mean, we've got a very kind of raucous political dialog going on right now. And there are a lot of people who feel that the government in general, this administration in particular, is already too involved in people's personal choices. What would you say about that?

Dr. SCHWARTZ: Well, I guess I look at it in a couple of ways. I'm a psychologist, so, of course, I believe that a lot of, you know, people do have a lot of control over what they do and can use their minds. But I have been really humbled over the years of treating obesity and realizing that what people psychologically know they need to do and what they're able to do in the environment are sometimes two very different things. And so I think people are affected by what's available, what's inexpensive, you know, and the sort of short-term satisfaction of certain foods in a way that really overwhelms their ability to be responsible.

So the way I see it is that people do need to take responsibility, but we need to build an environment and a society that really supports people in making the better choice rather than what we have now, where it's actually harder to make the better choice most of the time.

MARTIN: Robin, you've written about how this issue of obesity among children and the general population is increasingly regarded by some as a social justice issue. Could you talk more about that?

Ms. GIVHAN: Yeah. I mean one of the, I think, most striking comments made at the event yesterday came from a fellow named Will Allen, who was introduced as an urban farmer, which is kind of a very, sort of, modest way of describing, you know, his impact on the community that he's in up around Milwaukee. But he talked about how having access to healthy food is a right, and that when we look at some of the ways in which people struggle in communities to gain access to that, it really is about social justice, that, you know, they're put at an enormous disadvantage - not merely in terms of weight, but in terms of employment and health and a whole host of other issues.

So I think he was able to really broaden it, so that you can see that it's not just a matter of vanity, which is one of the things that the first lady quite quickly swatted down, as a reason for doing this. I mean, I think he really put it into a broader context.

MARTIN: And finally, Robin, in the minute we have left, would you just talk a little bit about what the first lady talked about? She talked about the fact that she had not always had the easiest time making healthy choices for her family. I thought that was kind of interesting.

Ms. GIVHAN: Yeah. I mean, I think one of her great strengths was her ability to empathize with working families and to underscore that not too very long ago, she had to juggle soccer practice and business meetings, and that it was really her own kids' pediatrician who said to her, you need to kind of take a look at what you're putting on the table, because you are kind of going down the road that, you know, is preventable. So I think that - in that way, she really underscores that, look, I know the kind of time pressure that families are under. I know what's easiest. So I understand that you want to make these changes. And I'm going to try to make them as easy for you as possible to incorporate.

MARTIN: All right. Well, keep us posted.

Ms. GIVHAN: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Robin Givhan reports for The Washington Post. She attended yesterday's announcement at the White House, and she joined us by phone from her home office. We were also joined by Marlene Schwartz, the deputy director of Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. She joined us from her home office in Connecticut. I thank you both so much for speaking to us.

Dr. SCHWARTZ: Thank you.

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