When Michelle Obama became first lady, she stressed that her "No. 1 job" would be "first mom." Following through on that focus, today at the White House she elevated her personal concern for her own kids' health and eating habits into a massive national campaign aimed at solving the U.S. epidemic of childhood obesity in a generation.
Calling the issue "one of the most serious threats to their future," Obama noted that childhood-obesity rates have tripled in the past three decades, and that the excess weight kids are carrying these days increases the risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, and asthma. As a result, Obama said, she had "great concern" that too many of today's kids were on track to live shorter and less healthy lives than their parents, even though the problem is "so imminently solvable."
"This isn't like a disease where we're still waiting for the cure to be discovered, we know the cure for this," Obama told an audience packed into the White House's State Dining Room. "This isn't like putting a man on the moon or inventing the Internet—it doesn't take some stroke of genius or feat of technology. We have everything we need, right now, to help our kids lead healthy lives ... so let's move to solve it."
Obama's "Let's Move" campaign aims to increase awareness and solve the problem with a comprehensive approach that will encourage families and communities, schools and states, doctors and coaches, private industry and not-for-profits to work in a coordinated effort to attack the problem on multiple fronts simultaneously. Not only did she call on schools to provide their students with healthier meals and more active playtime, but she said she would work to encourage communities to promote farmers' markets and recreation, pediatricians to write prescriptions for more vegetables and exercise, and the USDA to identify and eliminate "food deserts," often located in poor neighborhoods, where grocery stores don't exist and residents have little option but to buy junk food at convenience stores.
To help coordinate these efforts, she also announced the creation of a new independent foundation—the Partnership for a Healthier America—which will funnel some of the nation's premier health foundations' resources into creating new initiatives and accelerating efforts aimed at solving this problem. In addition to those efforts, she clearly signaled that she plans to invest a good share of her personal star power and political passion into bringing more attention to this campaign.
And even though she has gotten flak for previously talking about how she struggled with this issue with her own kids, she didn't back away from expanding on her personal experiences, noting that childhood obesity is "an issue of great concern to me, not just as a first lady, but as a mom."
"It wasn't long ago that I was a working mom, struggling to balance meetings and deadlines with soccer and ballet," she said. "And there were some nights when everybody was tired and hungry, and we just went to the drive-throughs because it was quick and cheap, or went with one of the less healthy microwave options, because it was easy. And one day, my pediatrician pulled me aside and told me, ‘You might want to think about doing things a little bit differently.' That was a moment of truth for me. It was a wakeup call that I was the one in charge, even if it didn't always feel that way."
She also detailed her own childhood experiences to make the point that like many parents today, she remembered a time when things were very different.
"Like many of you, when I was young, we walked to school every day, rain or shine, and in Chicago, we did it in wind, sleet, hail, and snow too," she said. As a girl, she had recess twice a day and gym class twice a week, "and we spent hours running around outside when school got out. You didn't go inside until dinner was ready—and when it was, we would gather around the table for dinner as a family. And there was one simple rule: you ate what Mom fixed—good, bad, or ugly. Kids had absolutely no say in what they felt like eating. If you didn't like it, you were welcome to go to bed hungry. Back then, fast food was a treat, and dessert was mainly a Sunday affair. In my home, we weren't rich. The foods we ate weren't fancy. But there was always a vegetable on the plate. And we managed to lead a pretty healthy life."
But these days, she said, parents often work longer hours and can't always eat together as a family. The cost of fruits and vegetables has risen 50 percent faster than other foods in the past 20 years, making some of the healthiest foods more expensive. While government, private industry, and philanthropies can do some things to help, she stressed that the main responsibility for making healthy decisions for kids ultimately rests with adults, and encouraged parents, particularly, to lead the way by doing simple things, like replacing soda with water or skim milk, encouraging kids to walk places, cutting back on portion size.
"It's time for us to be honest with ourselves about how we got here," she said. "Our kids didn't do this to themselves ... no matter how much they beg for pizza, fries, and candy, ultimately, they are not, and should not be, the ones calling the shots at dinnertime. We're in charge. We make these decisions. But that's actually the good news here. If we're the ones who make the decisions, then we can decide to solve the problem."
While the plan she laid out Tuesday was ambitious and multilayered, in the end, it may be her attempts to talk mom-to-mom that may make the biggest impact.