First Lady: Nation's Health 'Starts With Our Kids'
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Like too many parents, Michelle Obama found herself listening to her children's doctor say their weight was up, a sign that habits needed to change. In their case, exercise was not an issue, so she realized that a working mom whose husband was often out of town took the kids out to eat too often and allowed too many sweet drinks.
Then as first lady of the United States, she focused on the epidemic of childhood obesity. There's the Let's Move campaign for exercise and better food and the famous White House vegetable garden as an example of ways we can all eat healthier. She's written a new book about that and joins us in just a moment.
Today we want to hear from parents and kids. What's hard as we try to lead healthier lives? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, in an effort to persuade Israel to hold off, former American officials say U.S. forces have viable and credible plans to take out Iran's nuclear facilities if needed. But first, childhood obesity. First lady Michelle Obama joins us from her office at the White House. Her book is "American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America," and thanks very much for being with us today.
MICHELLE OBAMA: Thank you for having me.
CONAN: And when you changed your family's habits, what was the hard part?
OBAMA: You know, the hard part was trying to get the kids excited about a new diet. I mean, you know, one of the challenges that we face as moms is that today's foods are so high in sodium and sugar in an artificial way that kids' taste buds are really adjusted for that high level of sugar and salt. So when you go back to natural foods, things that aren't processed, it takes them time to adjust. And I experienced that, but I found that when I involve the kids...
CONAN: And we seem to be having a little difficulty with our piece of technology there in the White House office of first lady Michelle Obama that's sending her audio signal from there to us across town, here in Washington, D.C., all of about, what, 13 blocks, but nevertheless an insurmountable difficulty from time to time.
We're talking to her today about what's difficult as you try to get your family to eat healthier and exercise and work on the problem of childhood obesity. We want to hear from kids and parents today, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. And first lady Michelle Obama is back with us.
CONAN: Sorry for the problem.
OBAMA: OK, can you hear me now?
CONAN: It's perfect.
OBAMA: OK, well, we were talking about what's the difficult part of making the change in our home, and it was really getting the kids' taste buds acclimated to actually non-processed foods. But once we got them involved in the process of clearing out the cabinets, and we explained what was going on, and we spent time with them in farmer's markets, slowly but surely we started to introduce real food to their diets: fresh vegetables, which tend to taste more tasty for kids; fresh juices, which they got adjusted to.
And slowly they began to embrace it, and that's where the whole notion of planting a garden came from because I found that in my own kids, when they were involved in the process of growing and harvesting their own food, and they were engaged, they actually embraced the idea. And I thought, well, if I didn't have this figured out with all my education and all my exposure, you know, there are probably other parents and families out there who needed help, as well.
So I thought that a garden in the backyard of the White House would be a wonderful way to begin a conversation about what we feed our kids and their overall health.
CONAN: Was there a moment, again as you're weaning them from one style of food to another, was there a moment when you realized it's beginning to work?
OBAMA: Absolutely. It doesn't take long. I mean, that's the beauty of children, they're so, you know, they're so adjustable. They tend to change more quickly than adults, and that's one of the reasons why we started with children and working on the issue of childhood obesity because children are not so hard-wired as adults.
And it took about a few weeks, maybe a month before they started getting used to the taste of fresh-squeezed juice rather than juice out of the can. And once they understood what was at stake for them - and I say this a lot to kids, I always ask the question would you water your plant with a soda. And kids naturally respond well, no, that would be silly.
But when you explain to them that that's really what they're doing to their own bodies and that their bodies are living organisms, and they respond to what we put in them and, you know, how we nurture them, kids, the light goes off, the light bulb goes off in their heads, and they start to think differently about what they want to eat. So...
CONAN: A month can be an awful long haul.
CONAN: A lot of aw, moms.
OBAMA: Well, over the span of a child's life, a month isn't that bad, and I think that's one of the things, that's really the hard part is that, you know, we don't - as parents we don't want our kids to be miserable, you know, and that's the tough thing about this challenge is that, you know, a lot of parents are just tired.
And when you come home from a hard day of working, and you just want to get dinner out of the way, and you don't want the whining or the complaining - I've been through it, believe me. You just want to give them what they want, and you want them to kind of be quiet and just eat.
And I think because it's become so easy to have a fast-food lifestyle, to go through the drive-through, to pop something in the microwave, to give every child at the table the exact meal that they want, you know. As tired parents we kind of succumb at times, and that wasn't the case when I was growing up because we didn't have microwaves, fast food was a treat.
And I remember sitting around the dinner table whining over what was served for dinner, and the peas didn't taste good, and it was just - you know, if the meal was bad, our attitudes were bad at the dinner table.
OBAMA: But, you know, the motto in our house is that you eat what's on your plate, and if you don't like it, tough. And that's changed over the years. And, you know, I talk about that a bit in the book, just how life has changed for so many American families, everything from what we put on our plate to how often our kids get outside to how much time they're spending in front of a screen of any kind.
And that has slowly had an effect on our children's lifestyles, their overall health. And I think that many of us as parents, we just haven't noticed, not because we don't care, but we're so busy, and so many parents are just tired.
So the hope is that by starting the conversation with our children, you know, I find that adults are more inclined to make the changes for their kids more quickly than they will for themselves, and I've seen that happening across the country as we've begun this conversation.
CONAN: Our guest is the first lady of the United States, Michelle Obama. The book again, she just mentioned, "American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America." We'd like to hear from parents and kids today: What's the hard part about eating and living healthier? 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. And let's see if we can start with April, April's on the line with us from Reno.
APRIL: Hi, it's such a pleasure to speak with you. I just have to say that it sounds like you live in my house.
APRIL: I have to say that it's very difficult for me, being a very busy mom and having everybody else that lives in my family be onboard to help the kids eat better. I mean, just even this morning, my - on my way out the door, my mom watches my daughter, she had a cookie as I'm going out the door. I'm like no, you know.
Or it's really hard to get everybody on the same page and being willing to put up with the whines and, you know, all that kind of fighting kind of at the dinner table and to get everybody to say we're going to do this, we're going to have a plan of eating healthy. And everybody in this family needs to do it together because that's where it goes bad for us.
OBAMA: Absolutely, April, and, you know, you know my mom lives with us, and she helps with the kids. And I tease her all the time that, you know, I think she thinks I'm the meanest mom on the planet because she thinks the kids should have dessert at every meal. And I remind her: Mom, these are the rules that we had growing up.
And I think our grandparents, sometimes they forget. The grandchildren, you know, aren't that different. But I think you're absolutely right. It really does help when everyone is onboard. But what we found is that sometimes the kids are the best ones to lead the charge. You know, we've seen that with our garden because you know we have kids who work with us. I mean, that's one of the primary parts about the garden that I wanted to make sure that it was a teaching garden.
So we worked with kids and local schools who come and help us do everything from digging up the soil to doing the first planting to harvesting to eating the bounty. They are wonderful helpers. And what you find is that they start getting excited about the changes in diet. They start tasting what fresh roasted red peppers are like on a flatbread pizza, and when it's actually pretty good, they think, you know, I want my mom to make this. I'm going to go home and ask for this.
Or, you know, we travel around to other communities that are working on health-related initiatives, and kids are the first ones who will take the ideas home and try to get them implemented. So, you know, as adults, as moms and dads and all those wonderful people who support families, we have to be ready to embrace that energy, even if it means that we have to change our habits. And sometimes, we're, you know, we're the biggest challenge. So I definitely understand what you're talking about.
But I think the more kids get educated about, you know, what they need to do to be healthier, the more they're inclined to embrace it. So we have to keep giving them information.
I know my kids respond better to not just do what I say but why. And if I can explain the why, and if we keep talking about it and talking through the challenges, they get it a little bit better. But in the end, you know, it's really up to us as parents to put our foot down and say, you know, we're doing it, and here we go.
CONAN: April, are you able to - April, are you able to keep a garden there in Nevada?
APRIL: Yeah, actually, we did - we just started one this year, and it's beautiful, and my kids help us out with it. So it's been a really wonderful thing. We're just hoping that when we get harvesting going that they'll be a part of the eating process, too. So...
OBAMA: Well, you know, the thing to think about is making fun recipes that are familiar to them, you know, doing a flatbread pizza, putting some cheese on it, you know, making it something close to what they do. We have a recipe in the book for cauliflower macaroni and cheese that is really delicious. So make the recipes fun.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, April.
APRIL: All right, take care, bye-bye.
CONAN: We're talking with first lady Michelle Obama about the challenges of getting kids to eat right and exercise. We want to hear from parents and kids. What's the hard part? 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Our guest today, first lady Michelle Obama. She knows firsthand how hard it can be to get the kids to eat more vegetables and less junk. She's made it a personal mission to fight childhood obesity through projects through the Let's Move campaign and her recent book, "American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America."
All that healthy eating can taste good too. We've posted two recipes from the book at our website, chef Cris Comerford's spinach pie and chef Sam Kass's corn soup with summer vegetables. You can find those at npr.org. Parents and kids, call and tell us: What's the hard part? 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Here's an email from Susan: In addition to dietary challenges, there's a lack of opportunity for kids to be involved in physical activity. You mentioned the very low number of schools which have PE programs. I see this happening in other venues too.
What I see happening is that by the time kids are 10 years old, the system is culling the herd and making participation for the non-jock very difficult. I think it's a real shame that children are getting filtered out of athletics at the ancient age of third, fourth or fifth grade.
OBAMA: Oh, that's absolutely true, and I think the problem is even worse when it comes to girls. I mean, there are some studies that show that girls stop moving, many, at the age of 13. It may be the last time that they're engaged in any kind of physical activity, and that's pretty shocking. But movement, exercise, that's the other leg of the stool of nutrition.
It's information, it's diet, it's movement. And, you know, that's why we call it Let's Move. And we approach this concept by trying to make exercise what it used to be, which was play, and it was fun, because truly not every kid is going to be an athlete. But when we were growing up, you didn't have to be because you were outside, and you were playing piggy, and you were jumping rope, and you were - you know, you were running around and you were playing chase, and you were playing the kind of games in your neighborhood that all kids could participate in, or else it wouldn't be fun.
They weren't just for the athletes. But again, neighborhoods are changing. There are many communities where it's just not safe for kids to play outside, and parents know that. And you know, when you're worried about your child's safety, the first thing you want to do is just bring them close and keep them nearby.
There are also communities where, you know, there are no sidewalks, there are no playgrounds nearby, and that's one of the reasons why we're working with leaders of cities and towns with Let's Move Cities and Towns, because it really is going to take a community.
You know, parents, yes, they are the definite point of last decision-making in the household, and they're our children's first and best role models, but they have to live in communities that support the whole health of the family.
CONAN: What are the rules of piggy?
OBAMA: Oh, piggy, one of my childhood games. I talk about this in the book. But it's a softball game. In Chicago we used bigger softballs, 16 inch, and you had a batter, a pitcher and a catcher. That's all you basically needed, but you've got to have a lot of outfielders. And the goal was trying to be at bat. So if the pitcher swung and you hit it, the catchers, if they either caught it on a fly or on one bounce, you'd lose your bat, right?
So your goal was to stay at bat, and we would play that in our neighborhood all day long - girls, boys, it wouldn't matter. All you needed was a bat and a softball. You know, but those days, you know, are over. I mean, my mom still lives in the house that we grew up in, and I can count the number of kids that I see outside playing. And we would play outside all day long, from, you know, morning until the streetlights came on.
CONAN: In Jersey, I think we called that game One o'cat. So...
OBAMA: OK, well, see? You know, it takes all kinds.
CONAN: Let's get another caller in on the conversation. This is Kelly(ph), Kelly's on the line from Ann Arbor.
KELLY: Hi. Well, you know, this weighs heavily on me because I have three children, one of whom struggles with his weight. And one of the things I found is as they get older particularly, it's very hard for them to not be eating what other people are eating. And what other people are eating often, you know, when they go to friends' houses or at school or on their way home from school is junk, because it seems to be what's around a lot.
In fact, it seems to be the norm, and I don't think we talk very much about that, about it sort of being the way we, our culture now in America, approaches food, is what's fast and easy and on the go. But what we've done, one of the things we've done to deal with that is to try to host more at home, because at least then I have more of a chance to, you know, kind of encourage healthier choices just by what I have in the house.
It gets harder as they get older. My kids are teenagers. It's very hard to encourage those choices when they can just as easily stop off at the corner store or order pizza or, you know, do all these other things when I'm not around. But that is one thing we've tried to do. And then I have, you know, I have fruit kebobs out, I have popcorn, I have, you know, for snacking types of things.
And then when the time comes for meals, I just try to make it as pretty as possible so that people get into it.
OBAMA: Yeah. Well, it sounds like you're doing the best that you can, and I think that that's - you know, what we see is that parents want to do the right thing. It's just that societally, it feels like we're, you know, pushing a big heavy boulder up a hill because everything out there is working against the health of our kids.
That's why one of the things we were able to do, which was pass the Healthy Lunch Initiative, where we're going to be seeing more nutritious lunches in our kids' school, in the public school system coming this fall, and our goal is to work on all of the food that is available to children at schools because the frustration that this mom is seeing is what a lot of parents are seeing.
You may have complete control over what goes on in your house, but the minute they leave the door, they walk out that door, you lose control completely. And that's also why the announcement that Disney made was really important and why we stood with them, because changing the marketing that networks are doing to children, and children's programs, really helps parents.
So it is a battle. But we have to be cognizant of that battle. And the motto in my household is that if 80 percent of what you're eating, 90 percent of what you're eating is good stuff, then when you get out there for the other 10 percent, it does less damage, which makes it more imperative that what we do in the house is on point, because you're absolutely right.
My kids are getting older, and they're spending more and more time at friends' house, going to the movies, and you don't want them worried about their nutrition every single day of the year. So we have to do as much as we can when we have them.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Kelly.
KELLY: Thank you.
CONAN: And you mentioned the Disney Channel's decision, voluntarily, to change the kinds of ads they're willing to accept. Critics, though, say A) three years is a long time to wait; and B) there are other channels that have not changed their policies at all.
OBAMA: Well, you're absolutely right. But we take one victory at a time. You know, you don't want the great to be the enemy of the good, as they say, and you know, it takes time for large networks to make the changes that they need to. It doesn't devalue the importance of what Disney has done. And our hope is that other networks will follow suit, because what Disney is able to do because it's such a big player in the market is that the folks that want to market are going to have to change the nature of their food in order to pass the standards at Disney.
And that's going to help all of our kids, whether it happens tomorrow or it happens in three years. Just so that we're moving in the right direction, that is meaningful, and you know, that's why we put a call out to all companies, all - you know, this - Let's Move is about everyone doing their part. You can't just look at parents and say make the right decisions, A) when they don't have the right information, and B) you know, all of the food out there is working against those decisions, or they either don't have access to the good food and the nutritious, you know, produce in their communities.
So we need food manufacturers, we need our food producers, we need our stores, our, you know, our schools, our mayors. Everyone has to step up on this issue.
CONAN: You are urging, publicly urging people to change, make healthier choices in their lives, but the governments from time to time, well, mandates these things. We've seen lately the mayor of New York, say, banning sales of very large size soft drinks and that sort of thing. Where's the line? Where do we go from a government that's making choices easier to what critics would call a nanny state?
OBAMA: Right. Well, people definitely don't want the government telling people what to do, and we've structured Let's Move to be the opposite of that, because we do want- we do understand that parents, families, communities have to make these decisions for themselves. And it's important because there's no one-size-fits-all solution to this problem. What works in Nevada may not work in Pennsylvania. What works in an urban community may not work in a rural community.
So it's really up to communities to make these decisions about, you know, which way to go. We try to, you know, have a big tent and to use sort of the carrot mentality, that we want everybody in the table - at the table in whatever way they can because if we're slowly starting to change the culture, if we're slowly starting to have a set of different conversations around the dinner tables and around the schoolyard and among teachers and, you know, kids heading to college, this is the kind of momentum that changes demand, and then those that are supplying will have to respond.
So it requires a big tent, and it's going to take some time. That's one of the reasons why our goal for Let's Move! is to change the health of those children born today. It is a generational goal because this isn't something that's going to happen overnight. We didn't get here overnight, and it's going to take us a while to change our habits and to change our cultural norms so that we're supporting the kind of lifestyle that we want to provide for our children.
CONAN: One final email, this from Maryanne in Hollywood: When I speak to my teenagers about portion size and food choices, first, they're insulted because they think I'm calling them fat, then...
CONAN: ...they tell me not to tell them what to do, then they're going to tell me that they're going to make their own choices. How do you make suggestions to hormonal teenagers...
CONAN: ...on modeling good eating habits?
OBAMA: Well, I don't quite have one yet, so...
OBAMA: ...I'm still, you know, I, you know, I could reverse that question. What do I do when Malia starts looking at me like I'm crazy?
OBAMA: But I, you know, for me, what I tell my kids is all I can do is give you the information, all I can do is model those choices, and all I can do is help you understand the consequences of your choices. And then I've got to be with you as you make those choices and give you some feedback. But in the end, even at 11 and 14, I'd tell my girls this isn't about who they are today. It's about who they're going to be when they go to college. What kind of parents are they're going to be, what kind of tools and information they're going to have to feed their own kids?
And if they don't learn this stuff now, you know, they're going to be dealing with these issues as adults. So we do a lot of talking and a little less sort of telling because, you know, it doesn't work for any kid, you know? That's why nanny state doesn't work because nobody wants to be told what to do. If kids don't want their parents telling them what to do, but at some point when we know what we need to do, and we know what the right thing is to do particularly when it comes to our health and the health of our nation. We've got to start talking and we've got to start listening. And, you know, it starts with our kids.
CONAN: Thank you so much for your time today. We know you've got another appointment. We appreciate your taking the time out to speak with us and our callers.
OBAMA: Thank you.
CONAN: First Lady Michelle Obama with us from her office at the White House. The book again is "American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And we're going to continue this conversation. We've gotten so many interesting calls and emails on this issue.
This from Nina: Our kids have always eaten a diet rich in fruit and veggies, and we've strongly limited their access to juice and refined sugars their whole lives. Now, they're getting a little bit older, though. They're more likely to ask for a cookie after dinner or push for a second granola bar. We've realize that although we never use to give them any refined sugar at all, not even in things like jam, we've started to slide down a slippery slope. I find myself saying no a lot to food requests. I have to remind myself that treats, even things like juice, should not even be in the house too often. With 25 percent of today's teens suffering from diabetes, my husband and I are committed to keeping our kids out of those statistics.
And let's get Lisa on the line. Lisa with us from Loveland in Ohio.
LISA: Hi. I just wanted to share my family's experience that also goes in hand with what has been talked about with involvement of communities and getting everybody on board. My daughter's school - the school system is - works with a community nonprofit organization that they - through the school, they have these gardens that they plant vegetables. They take care of them all throughout the year. And then over the summer, families in the community can pay a little bit of money - it's a very small amount - to take care of the plots and the gardens, and then take the - harvest them.
So we go once a week to weed the gardens. The organization who puts this on is Granny's Garden, and they do the watering. We go - we do the weeding, and then we harvest and get the, you know, the produce. And so what has been really good for us is that the connection for the kids about where the food comes from is really significant...
LISA: ...so that they see it coming out of the ground that they - that they're...
CONAN: That they tilled themselves. But do they get to eat the food at lunch in - at school that they've grown themselves?
LISA: Yeah. They do it throughout the year as well, and in fact, one of the things that we are - that we're told not to pick while we're there are the different root vegetables that they have. When the kids return in the fall, that's what they will harvest. And so they do different things in the schools with the stuff from the garden as well. And so for our family, we've had a complete connection to, you know, what the kids are learning at school about nutrition and where food comes from, that comes home. Our family actually goes as a family to take care of the garden.
And then we recently - we had never heard of garlic scapes, but this was something that that we were able to learn about. Even my husband and I, we had, you know, this is not something that we had tried before, and so we just last night used that from the garden to make homemade pesto.
CONAN: Oh, wow.
LISA: And so there are things that, I think, that the kids are getting when the communities are involved, when schools are involved and families - with everybody involved. And then they also get a sense of the food is not just coming from a package at a store that, oh, you know, this is something I took care of that's come out of the ground, and now we are having some family time to make a dish with it.
CONAN: Lisa, thanks very much for the phone call. We appreciate it.
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