First Lady Michelle Obama takes heat for naming Sasha, Malia in campaign against childhood obesity
The cause is unassailable. One in three American kids, about 25 million, are obese or overweight. Obesity-related diseases cost the healthcare system $150 billion a year. And the rate of obesity in kids tripled in the United States between 1980 and 1999, an epidemic blamed on lack of exercise, a poor diet that's heavy on fat and sugar and not enough fresh fruits and vegetables.
Now, First Lady Michelle Obama is making the issue her own, spearheading a campaign to inform parents about choices and schools about their responsibilities, urging everyone to get up and move. Her goal: Eliminate childhood obesity within a generation. "We can't afford to wait," she says.
And everyone is applauding -- President Obama, who is pushing for reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act with a "historic" $10-billion investment over 10 years to improve the quality of school meals; the Centers for Disease Control, which has launched its own campaign on the issue; as well as the Disney Corp., which is planning public service announcements about the need for kids to exercise.
In an era of partisan trench warfare, the first lady, who calls herself the mom-in-chief, could be the glue that unites a divisive Washington.
But in interviews about the campaign, the first lady has been tracing her interest in the issue to weight gains by daughters Sasha and Malia when they were younger. When a pediatrician in Chicago expressed concern over the girls' fluctuating weight, said their mother, "I had a wake-up call."
Now, some critics are questioning whether using her own daughters as examples is fair to them. "Was it hurtful to her girls?" asked one blogger who focuses on Mommy issues. Psychology Today even questioned the first lady for using the word "chubby" to describe her daughters.
While her heart is in the right place, Michelle may not have considered or been familiar with the delicate balance between preventing obesity and triggering eating disorders. She mentioned that she put her children on a diet after her pediatrician and their father felt they were getting “chubby.” Words like “chubby” don’t cause eating disorders but they are often a trigger to disordered eating behavior. As an eating disorder professional, we would strongly caution parents from using labels or prerogative words to describe their child’s weight as this has lasting impacts on a child’s self esteem.
But the anecdote about her kids is more about her own education than theirs. After the pediatrician flagged the issue, Obama said she made modest changes -- making sure portion sizes weren't too large, switching to low-fat milk, replacing sugary drinks with bottled water, offering plenty of fruits and "colorful" vegetables, making sure they got out and exercised. "The next time we visited our pediatrician, he was amazed," she reported. "He looked over the girls' charts and said, 'What on earth are you doing?' "
That's kind of the report card she's hoping for for the nation. In her remarks today, she said:
That was a moment of truth for me. Today, it's time for a moment of truth for our country. ... Our kids didn't do this to themselves. Our kids don't decide what's served to them at school or whether there's time for gym class or recess. Our kids don't choose to make food products with tons of sugar and sodium in super-sized portions and then to have those products marketed to them everywhere they turn. And 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.
Read her full remarks below, as provided by the White House.
-- Johanna Neuman
Photo: Annie Leibovitz
As Prepared for Delivery
Let's Move Launch
February 9, 2010
Hello everyone, thank you so much. It is such a pleasure to be here with all of you today.
Tammy, thank you for that wonderful introduction and for your outstanding work in the White House garden.
I want to recognize the extraordinary Cabinet members with us today - Secretaries Vilsack, Sebelius, Duncan, Salazar, Donovan and Solis - as well as Surgeon General Benjamin. Thanks to all of you for your excellent work.
Thanks also to Senators Harkin and Gillibrand, and Representatives DeLauro, Christensen and Fudge for their leadership and for being here today.
And I want to thank Tiki Barber, Dr. Judith Palfrey, Will Allen, and Mayors Johnson and Curtatone for braving the weather to join us, and for their outstanding work every day to help our kids lead active, healthy lives.
And I hear that congratulations are in order for the Watkins Hornets, who just won the Pee Wee National Football Championship. Let's give them a hand to show them how proud we are.
We're here today because we care deeply about the health and well-being of these kids and kids like them all across the country. And we're determined to finally take on one of the most serious threats to their future: the epidemic of childhood obesity in America today - an issue that's of great concern to me not just as a First Lady, but as a mom.
Often, when we talk about this issue, we begin by citing sobering statistics like the ones you've heard today - that over the past three decades, childhood obesity rates in America have tripled; that nearly one third of children in America are now overweight or obese - one in three.
But these numbers don't paint the full picture. These words - "overweight" and "obese" - they don't tell the full story. This isn't just about inches and pounds or how our kids look. It's about how our kids feel, and how they feel about themselves. It's about the impact we're seeing on every aspect of their lives.
Pediatricians like Dr. Palfrey are seeing kids with high blood pressure and high cholesterol - even Type II diabetes, which they used to see only in adults. Teachers see the teasing and bullying; school counselors see the depression and low-self-esteem; and coaches see kids struggling to keep up, or stuck on the sidelines.
Military leaders report that obesity is now one of the most common disqualifiers for military service. Economic experts tell us that we're spending outrageous amounts of money treating obesity-related conditions like diabetes, heart disease and cancer. And public health experts tell us that the current generation could actually be on track to have a shorter lifespan than their parents.
None of us wants this kind of future for our kids - or for our country. So instead of just talking about this problem, instead of just worrying and wringing our hands about it, let's do something about it. Let's act...let's move.
Let's move to help families and communities make healthier decisions for their kids. Let's move to bring together governors and mayors, doctors and nurses, businesses, community groups, educators, athletes, Moms and Dads to tackle this challenge once and for all. And that's why we're here today - to launch "Let's Move" - a campaign that will rally our nation to achieve a single, ambitious goal: solving the problem of childhood obesity in a generation, so that children born today will reach adulthood at a healthy weight.
But to get where we want to go, we need to first understand how we got here. So let me ask the adults here today to close your eyes and think back for a moment...think back to a time when we were growing up.
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. Remember how, at school, we 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.
Many kids today aren't so fortunate. Urban sprawl and fears about safety often mean the only walking they do is out their front door to a bus or a car. Cuts in recess and gym mean a lot less running around during the school day, and lunchtime may mean a school lunch heavy on calories and fat. For many kids, those afternoons spent riding bikes and playing ball until dusk have been replaced by afternoons inside with TV, the Internet, and video games.
And these days, with parents working longer hours, working two jobs, they don't have time for those family dinners. Or with the price of fresh fruits and vegetables rising 50 percent higher than overall food costs these past two decades, they don't have the money. Or they don't have a supermarket in their community, so their best option for dinner is something from the shelf of the local convenience store or gas station.
So many parents desperately want to do the right thing, but they feel like the deck is stacked against them. They know their kids' health is their responsibility - but they feel like it's out of their control. They're being bombarded by contradictory information at every turn, and they don't know who or what to believe. The result is a lot of guilt and anxiety - and a sense that no matter what they do, it won't be right, and it won't be enough.
I know what that feels like. I've been there. While today I'm blessed with more help and support than I ever dreamed of, I didn't always live in the White House.
It wasn't that long ago that I was a working Mom, struggling to balance meetings and deadlines with soccer and ballet. And there were some nights when everyone was tired and hungry, and we just went to the drive-thru 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.
And today, it's time for a moment of truth for our country; it's time we all had a wakeup call. It's time for us to be honest with ourselves about how we got here. Our kids didn't do this to themselves. Our kids don't decide what's served to them at school or whether there's time for gym class or recess. Our kids don't choose to make food products with tons of sugar and sodium in super-sized portions, and then to have those products marketed to them everywhere they turn. And 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 this problem. And when I say "we," I'm not just talking about folks here in Washington. This isn't about politics. There's nothing Democratic or Republican, liberal or conservative, about doing what's best for our kids. And I've spoken with many experts about this issue, and not a single one has said that the solution is to have government tell people what to do. Instead, I'm talking about what we can do. I'm talking about commonsense steps we can take in our families and communities to help our kids lead active, healthy lives.
This isn't about trying to turn the clock back to when we were kids, or preparing five course meals from scratch every night. No one has time for that. And it's not about being 100 percent perfect 100 percent of the time. Lord knows I'm not. There's a place for cookies and ice cream, burgers and fries - that's part of the fun of childhood.
Often, it's just about balance. It's about small changes that add up - like walking to school, replacing soda with water or skim milk, trimming those portion sizes a little - things like this can mean the difference between being healthy and fit or not.
There's no one-size-fits-all solution here. Instead, it's about families making manageable changes that fit with their schedules, their budgets, and their needs and tastes.
And it's about communities working to support these efforts. Mayors like Mayors Johnson and Curtatone, who are building sidewalks, parks and community gardens. Athletes and role models like Tiki Barber, who are building playgrounds to help kids stay active. Community leaders like Will Allen who are bringing farmers markets to underserved areas. Companies like the food industry leaders who came together last fall and acknowledged their responsibility to be part of the solution. But there's so much more to do.
And that's the mission of Let's Move - to create a wave of efforts across this country that get us to our goal of solving childhood obesity in a generation.
We kicked off this initiative this morning when my husband signed a presidential memorandum establishing the first ever government-wide Task Force on Childhood Obesity. The task force is composed of representatives from key agencies - including many who are here today. Over the next 90 days, these folks will review every program and policy relating to child nutrition and physical activity. And they'll develop an action plan marshalling these resources to meet our goal. And to ensure we're continuously on track to do so, the Task Force will set concrete benchmarks to measure our progress.
But we can't wait 90 days to get going here. So let's move right now, starting today, on a series of initiatives to help achieve our goal.
First, let's move to offer parents the tools and information they need - and that they've been asking for - to make healthy choices for their kids. We've been working with the FDA and several manufacturers and retailers to make our food labels more customer-friendly, so people don't have to spend hours squinting at words they can't pronounce to figure out whether the food they're buying is healthy or not. In fact, just today, the nation's largest beverage companies announced that they'll be taking steps to provide clearly visible information about calories on the front of their products - as well as on vending machines and soda fountains. This is exactly the kind of vital information parents need to make good choices for their kids.
We're also working with the American Academy of Pediatrics, supporting their groundbreaking efforts to ensure that doctors not only regularly measure children's BMI, but actually write out a prescription detailing steps parents can take to keep their kids healthy and fit.
In addition, we're working with the Walt Disney Company, NBC Universal, and Viacom to launch a nationwide public awareness campaign educating parents and children about how to fight childhood obesity.
And we're creating a one-stop shopping website - LetsMove.gov - so with the click of a mouse, parents can find helpful tips and step-by-step strategies, including healthy recipes, exercise plans, and charts they can use to track their family's progress.
But let's remember: 31 million American children participate in federal school meal programs - and many of these kids consume as many as half their daily calories at school. And what we don't want is a situation where parents are taking all the right steps at home - and then their kids undo all that work with salty, fatty food in the school cafeteria.
So let's move to get healthier food into our nation's schools. That's the second part of this initiative. We'll start by updating and strengthening the Child Nutrition Act - the law that sets nutrition standards for what our kids eat at school. And we've proposed an historic investment of an additional $10 billion over ten years to fund that legislation.
With this new investment, we'll knock down barriers that keep families from participating in school meal programs and serve an additional one million students in the first five years alone. And we'll dramatically improve the quality of the food we offer in schools - including in school vending machines. We'll take away some of the empty calories, and add more fresh fruits and vegetables and other nutritious options.
We also plan to double the number of schools in the HealthierUS School Challenge - an innovative program that recognizes schools doing the very best work to keep kids healthy - from providing healthy school meals to requiring physical education classes each week. To help us meet that goal, I'm thrilled to announce that for the very first time, several major school food suppliers have come together and committed to decrease sugar, fat and salt; increase whole grains; and double the fresh produce in the school meals they serve. And also for the first time, food service workers - along with principals, superintendents and school board members across America - are coming together to support these efforts. With these commitments, we'll reach just about every school child in this country with better information and more nutritious meals to put them on track to a healthier life.
These are major steps forward. But let's not forget about the rest of the calories kids consume - the ones they eat outside of school, often at home, in their neighborhoods. And when 23.5 million Americans, including 6.5 million American children, live in "food deserts" - communities without a supermarket - those calories are too often empty ones. You can see these areas in dark purple in the new USDA Food Environment Atlas we're unveiling today. This Atlas maps out everything from diabetes and obesity rates across the country to the food deserts you see on this screen.
So let's move to ensure that all our families have access to healthy, affordable food in their communities. That's the third part of this initiative. Today, for the very first time, we're making a commitment to eliminate food deserts in America - and we plan to do so within seven years. Now, we know this is ambitious. And it will take a serious commitment from both government and the private sector. That's why we plan to invest $400 million a year in a Healthy Food Financing initiative that will bring grocery stores to underserved areas and help places like convenience stores carry healthier food options. And this initiative won't just help families eat better, it will help create jobs and revitalize neighborhoods across America.
But we know that eating right is only part of the battle. Experts recommend that children get 60 minutes of active play each day. If this sounds like a lot, consider this: kids today spend an average of seven and a half hours a day watching TV, and playing with cell phones, computers, and video games. And only a third of high school students get the recommended levels of physical activity.
So let's move. And I mean that literally. Let's find new ways for kids to be physically active, both in and out of school. That's the fourth, and final, part of this initiative.
We'll increase participation in the President's Physical Fitness Challenge. And we'll modernize the challenge, so it's not just about how athletic kids are - how many sit-ups or push-ups they can do - but how active they are. We'll double the number of kids who earn a Presidential Active Lifestyle Award in the next school year, recognizing those who engage in physical activity five days a week, for six weeks. We've also recruited professional athletes from a dozen different leagues - including the NFL, Major League Baseball, and the WNBA - to promote these efforts through sports clinics, public service announcements and more.
So that's some of what we're doing to achieve our goal. And we know we won't get there this year, or this Administration. We know it'll take a nationwide movement that continues long after we're gone. That's why today, I'm pleased to announce that a new, independent foundation has been created to rally and coordinate businesses, non-profits, and state and local governments to keep working until we reach our goal - and to measure our progress along the way. It's called the Partnership for a Healthier America, and it's bringing together some of the leading experts on childhood obesity, like The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, The California Endowment, The Kellogg Foundation, the Brookings Institution, and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, which is a partnership between the American Heart Association and the Clinton Foundation. And we expect others to join in the coming months.
So this is a pretty serious effort. And I know that in these challenging times for our country, there are those who will wonder whether this should really be a priority. They might view things like healthy school lunches and physical fitness challenges as "extras" - as things we spring for once we've taken care of the necessities. They might ask, "How can we spend money on fruits and vegetables in our school cafeterias when many of our schools don't have enough textbooks or teachers?" Or they might ask, "How can we afford to build parks and sidewalks when we can't even afford our health care costs?"
But when you step back and think about it, you realize - these are false choices. If kids aren't getting adequate nutrition, even the best textbooks and teachers in the world won't help them learn. If they don't have safe places to run and play, and they wind up with obesity-related conditions, then those health care costs will just keep rising.
So yes, we have to do it all...we'll need to make some modest, but critical, investments in the short-run...but we know that they'll pay for themselves - likely many times over - in the long-run. Because we won't just be keeping our kids healthy when they're young. We'll be teaching them habits to keep them healthy their entire lives.
We saw this firsthand here at the White House when we planted our garden with students like Tammy last Spring. One of Tammy's classmates wrote in an essay that her time in the garden, and I quote, "...has made me think about the choices I have with what I put in my mouth..." Another wrote with great excitement that he'd learned that tomatoes are both a fruit and a vegetable and contain vitamins that fight diseases. Armed with that knowledge, he declared, "So the tomato is a fruit and is now my best friend."
Think about the ripple effect when children use this knowledge to make healthy decisions for the rest of their lives. Think about the effect it will have on every aspect of their lives. Whether they can keep up with their classmates on the playground and stay focused in the classroom. Whether they have the self-confidence to pursue careers of their dreams, and the stamina to succeed in those careers. Whether they'll have the energy and strength to teach their own kids how to throw a ball or ride a bike, and whether they'll live long enough to see their grandkids grow up - maybe even their great grandkids too.
In the end, we know that solving our obesity challenge won't be easy - and it certainly won't be quick. But make no mistake about it, this problem can be solved.
This isn't like a disease where we're still waiting for the cure to be discovered - we know the cure for this. 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. 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 to solve it.
I don't want our kids to live diminished lives because we failed to step up today. I don't want them looking back decades from now and asking us, why didn't you help us when you had a chance? Why didn't you put us first when it mattered most?
So much of what we all want for our kids isn't within our control. We want them to succeed in everything they do. We want to protect them from every hardship and spare them from every mistake. But we know we can't do all of that. What we can do...what is fully within our control...is to give them the very best start in their journeys. What we can do is give them advantages early in life that will stay with them long after we're gone. As President Franklin Roosevelt once put it: "We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future."
That is our obligation, not just as parents who love our kids, but as citizens who love this country. So let's move. Let's get this done. Let's give our kids what they need to have the future they deserve.
Thank you so much.