First Lady's Anti-Obesity Campaign Keeps Going Strong

Wednesday marks one year since First Lady Michelle Obama launched her national initiative to help combat childhood obesity in the U.S. Her "Let's Move" campaign aims to offer healthier food at schools, as well as boost physical activity among kids. Host Michel Martin discusses the campaign's impact with Washington, DC elementary school principal Shannon Foster, parent Nakilah Dickey and pediatrician Dr. Leslie Walker.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

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

Happy New Year. It's the Lunar New Year celebrated throughout Asia and among Asians around the world. We'll go to San Francisco to hear about the celebrations there. That's coming up later in the program.

But first, an anniversary to mark in the campaign to get kids healthier. A year ago today, first lady Michelle Obama launched her campaign to get kids to increase their physical activity, to get healthy food in front of the nation's school children and to get them to want to eat it. She called the campaign Let's Move. The first lady set a goal of curbing childhood obesity in one generation.

Ms. MICHELLE OBAMA: And rarely in the history of this country have we encountered a problem of such magnitude and consequence that is so eminently solvable. So, let's move.

MARTIN: So, how has Mrs. Obama's program worked? We decided to check in on Washington, D.C.'s River Terrace Elementary School. It's one of Mrs. Obama's favorite schools, or so principal Shannon Foster tells us. She's with us by phone. Also with us, Nakilah Dickey, whose daughter Jayla(ph) is a fourth grader at River Terrace. Also joining us, Dr. Leslie Walker. She's a pediatrician at Seattle Children's Hospital.

Welcome to you all. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. SHANNON FOSTER (Principal, River Terrace Elementary School): Thank you for having me.

Ms. NAKILAH DICKEY: Good morning. Thank you, as well.

Dr. LESLIE WALKER (Pediatrician, Seattle Children's Hospital): I'm glad to be here.

MARTIN: So, Principal Foster, when we called you yesterday, you had to excuse yourself for a minute to go jump rope.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Which sounds like fun. Why were you jumping rope?

Ms. FOSTER: Well, at 10 o'clock we have our jamming minute. And so at the time of the phone call, it was time for jamming minute. So I had to excuse myself so that I could get in my minute of cardio.

MARTIN: And everybody participates.

Ms. FOSTER: Yes. Everyone participates, all of our students, staff members, even visitors. If you happen to visit our school at 10 o'clock a.m., you have to jam.

MARTIN: Oh, you have to jam. OK. Now, we say that River Terrace is one of Mrs. Obama's favorite schools because it's one of the first places she visited after making her announcement. What difference do you think her advocacy, her visibility has made in your efforts to get kids healthier?

Ms. FOSTER: I think one of the major differences it's made is that the children understand the importance. The first lady visiting their school, delivering a message about the importance of increasing physical fitness, about them making healthier food choices. It resonated with students...

MARTIN: What are some of the things you've done at River Terrace to embrace that message?

Ms. FOSTER: Well, we have added a salad bar to the school lunch period. We have our Stepping Tigers club. We also have our Mighty Milers, where students are setting mileage goals to walk or jog. We have staff employee wellness. We have a school wellness council. We have a fitness room for employees. And we're looking forward to our second round of parent healthy cooking classes this spring.

Additionally, the students have their own student garden, so they're growing vegetables. And their goal is to actually be able to grow vegetables and then to put them onto the salad bar to enjoy.

MARTIN: I hear that the kids are not shy about checking the teachers or regulating their behavior if they see somebody trying to sneak a McDonald's. I hear that that will get mentioned.

Ms. FOSTER: Yes, it will. Students definitely check on the staff and check on their parents, as well. And today happens to be Water Wednesday, so I don't think any adult will be able to get away with drinking coffee, tea, soda or juice in this building today because if a child sees us with it, they're going to remind us that it's Water Wednesday.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

MARTIN: OK. I want to remind everybody that you are at the office. So we will be hearing office sounds perhaps throughout our conversation.

Nakilah Dickey, tell us, what difference do you think that the first lady's focus on this issue has made and your children's school and with you?

Ms. DICKEY: Well, it certainly has brought a deeper awareness of the childhood obesity throughout the country. And we were very honored to have Michelle Obama magnify our school and what we were already doing here.

MARTIN: You think that - is there something about her being involved in it that makes the kids feel like it's more important? Is it just - do the kids identify with her, or they want to please her?

Ms. DICKEY: I'm not sure if it's that they want to please her. They did find it very special for her to honor her presence at our school. But the children had already began to do the healthy initiative and that was just the icing on the cake.

MARTIN: Dr. Walker, what about you, nationally? I mean obviously, the first lady can't visit every school. Do you feel that her advocacy has made a difference? Because there's always this debate over whether public figures really affect people's behavior or not. What do you see in your practice?

Dr. WALKER: In my practice and in our community here, I absolutely think that her visibility and her ability to role model as a mother of two young, you know, pre-teens has made a difference in the dialogue. And I think people have been concerned about obesity, especially in minority communities, for at least a decade. But I think her being in the White House, having that platform, showing people gardens, you know, you can have a garden in your apartment, you can have a garden in your yard, you can take control of your communities, you can demand better food in the schools, I think those things have really helped galvanize some people to more action.

MARTIN: Well, you know, you've talked to us before about your concern about this issue. And some of the concern is there are greater concerns in some communities than others. For example, recent data shows that African-Americans have a 51 percent higher, and Hispanics a 21 percent higher, prevalence of obesity compared with whites or Caucasians. That's according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But, Dr. Walker, as you know, that this whole focus has become a little bit controversial politically because some people are interpreting the first lady's efforts as the government telling me what to do. And I wonder if any of your patients feel that way.

Dr. WALKER: You know, the families I work with, I haven't heard that at all. I mean, you know, the people I'm working with that come to see me for obesity in particular are having hard lives. Their kids are on machines to help them breathe. A lot of them have sleep apnea problems. They have hip problems, back problems, cholesterol problems, diabetes. And, you know, so they come and they're looking for any way to make life better. You know, they're looking for ways to have their kids have better food in the schools. I think understanding the options and having power to make changes, that's, you know, some of the dialogue I've had.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're talking about Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign one year after that first lady's efforts begin a year ago today. You just heard pediatrician Dr. Lesley Walker. She's in Seattle. Also with us, Shannon Foster, principal of River Terrace Elementary School - that's one of the first places the first lady visited when she launched her campaign. And Nakilah Dickey, a parent at the school. She has a daughter currently attending the school. She has two daughters.

And Principal Foster, one of the things I noticed about the campaign at your school is that it's comprehensive. It covers everybody. It's not just the kids. It's also parents. It's also staff and faculty. I wanted to ask how you came up with that idea. And also I want to ask did anybody say stay out my business? Stay out of my Big Mac?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FOSTER: Well, it's important for all stakeholders to be involved. We have made making healthier choices and living a healthier life a part of our school mission. As far as someone saying, you know, don't tell us what to do, nothing that we do is mandatory. We make suggestions to our parents.

Now I'll give you an example. Parents like to celebrate birthdays at school. We make the suggestion, if you want to bring in a cake, could you perhaps bring in the cake that has frosting with less sugar? Could you not do cake, ice cream and candy? Could you just do cake and perhaps bottled water? So everything that we offer is always a suggestion and to date we haven't had any parents to complain about anything that we're doing. I think they understand that healthier children are better learners and we've made that commitment and we want what's best for our students.

MARTIN: In the couple minutes that we have left, I'd like to ask each of you what you would like to see next. What's the next step in building on what you already see as valuable?

So Principal Foster, why don't you start?

Ms. FOSTER: What I would like to see is us be able to chart data, to show the number of children who are benefiting. We have students in our Stepping Tigers class who have lost weight. We have families who, their grocery shopping has changed. You know, we like to be able to chart that data and share that data. We don't have funding to implement these programs so the things that we're doing are things that are free. We're able to implement - and we want to be able to chart that data and share that data so that other schools around the country and around the world can see what we're doing, see that it's easy and it benefits children.

MARTIN: And Nakilah Dickey, what about you? Is there - what additional steps that you'd like to see being taken?

Ms. DICKEY: Well, in the community, and just to piggyback off of what Principal Foster was saying, I would like to see River Terrace be used as like a pilot program for other schools to kind of, you know, glorify what we're doing here and the impacts and the strides that we are making with the students and the community.

MARTIN: And Dr. Walker, final thought from you.

Dr. WALKER: I think the communities in different places people are in different parts of the day coming together like church, schools, where people are shopping, I think all the community coming together would be good. And fresh food I think is real important too. Having fresh food and fruit be cheaper than the McDonald's and the fast food places that are so accessible I think would make a huge difference.

MARTIN: Dr. Leslie Walker is a pediatrician at Seattle Children's Hospital. She joined us on the line from her office there in Seattle. Shannon Foster is principal of River Terrace Elementary School. I want to mention that River Terrace Elementary School is the first school in the District of Columbia to achieve Gold Award status in the HealthierUS School Challenge. And we were also joined by Nakilah Dickey, whose daughter attends River Terrace Elementary School, and she was with us from there as well.

Ladies, thank you all so much for joining us.

Ms. DICKEY: Thank you.

Dr. WALKER: Thank you.

Ms. FOSTER: Thank you.

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