News / USA

    New Term Lets First Lady Press Obesity Fight

    Michelle Obama Returns to Fight Against Childhood Obesityi
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    January 19, 2013 1:06 AM
    As U.S. President Barack Obama is inaugurated for a second term, his wife Michelle will be at his side. But the First Lady has been a significant force in her own right, tackling a major public health threat -- obesity. It is a growing problem globally, raising rates of heart disease, cancer and diabetes; nowhere more so than in the United States. Health advocates say Mrs. Obama’s high-profile campaign against childhood obesity has helped bring much-needed attention to the issue. VOA's Steve Baragona reports.
    Michelle Obama Returns to Fight Against Childhood Obesity
    A second term for President Barack Obama allows Michelle Obama to continue her high-profile campaign against childhood obesity.

    It's a fight Mrs. Obama took up at the start of her husband's first term and she's expected to use her platform as first lady to continue it into his second.   

    Planting seeds for better health

    It started with the garden. Shortly after moving in four years ago, Michelle Obama dug up a patch of the White House lawn to plant organic vegetables and herbs, with the help of local school kids.

    It was a potent symbol for the urgent issue Obama would pursue.

    “Too many kids are consuming high-calorie foods with low nutritional value, and they’re not getting enough exercise," she said. "Plain and simple. They’re not eating right, and they’re not moving their bodies at all.”

    One out of every three children in the U.S. is overweight or obese, raising healthcare costs and even threatening the nation's military readiness.

    First lady Michelle Obama carries mustard plants for planting as she is joined by school children from across the country for the fourth annual White House Kitchen Garden spring planting, Monday, March 26,2012, at the White House.First lady Michelle Obama carries mustard plants for planting as she is joined by school children from across the country for the fourth annual White House Kitchen Garden spring planting, Monday, March 26,2012, at the White House.
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    First lady Michelle Obama carries mustard plants for planting as she is joined by school children from across the country for the fourth annual White House Kitchen Garden spring planting, Monday, March 26,2012, at the White House.
    First lady Michelle Obama carries mustard plants for planting as she is joined by school children from across the country for the fourth annual White House Kitchen Garden spring planting, Monday, March 26,2012, at the White House.
    Let's Move

    So, in February of 2010, the first lady launched a government-wide initiative called “Let’s Move.” The goal: to end childhood obesity in a generation.

    “This is our obligation," Obama said. "Not just as parents who love our kids, but citizens who love this country.”

    Overhauling the meals served in U.S. public schools has been a major focus for the first lady, but that's also drawn strong opposition from conservative lawmakers and segments of the food industry.

    She got a rock-star welcome at Parklawn Elementary just outside Washington last January, when she visited to announce new standards for school cafeteria food.

    “When we send our kids to school, we have a right to expect that they won’t be eating the kind of fatty, salty, sugary foods that we’re trying to keep from them when they’re at home,” she said at the time.

    Major shift

    To get government funding, schools must serve meals that are healthier than the old standards required, says health advocate Margo Wootan with the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

    “Double the amount of fruits and vegetables… limit the amount of salt, make the grains whole grain, the milk low fat," Wootan says. "This is a major shift.”

    But making that shift has not been easy. Many conservatives viewed the changes through the same lens as they saw the new U.S. health care law: as big government making decisions that should be left to individuals.

    And limits on French fries and pizza on school menus drew fire from potato growers and pizza makers.

    Challenges

    With the other rules now in effect in cafeteria kitchens nationwide, food service directors are facing another hurdle: healthier food is more expensive.

    “The costs have gone up. But reimbursement has not gone up accordingly,” Penny McConnell, food service chief at Parklawn and the other Fairfax County schools.

    She says the extra six cents per meal she receives from the federal government does not cover the cost of the extra fruits and vegetables she has to buy.

    Notoriously fussy kids who don’t always like healthier food present another challenge.

    “Having it there and available is half the battle," says Cornell University nutrition expert David Just. "But we’ve got to get them to actually want to eat it, so we’re not just putting food on the tray and throwing that good food away.”

    Continuing the fight

    More challenges lie ahead for Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity efforts as the administration sets rules for food in school vending machines and other snacks.

    At Parklawn Elementary School, food service chief Penny McConnell says the meals on cafeteria trays will be healthier, and the benefits could last a lifetime.

    “If we get the children at the elementary age, then I think we’ve won them through adolescence [and then young adults] and they’ll take these practices into their adulthood.”

    It is a goal Obama will be pursuing during her husband's second term: nurturing the seeds she planted in the first.

    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.

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    Comment Sorting
    Comments
         
    by: amishjihad from: Zürich Switzerland
    January 20, 2013 5:04 AM
    Last summer on a vacation back to the states, I drove from Chicago through Illinois and Iowa into S. Dakota and as far as the eye could see I saw mile after mile of corn and soy beans and nothing else. 85% of ALL crops that are grown in the good old USA go to feeding into and perpetuating the shame that is called the animal farming industry. Plus most, if not all crops are genetically modified and are regularly sprayed with Roundup and other deadly chemicals. Not a vegetable was being grown during that drive, as far as I could tell and I grew up on a farm so I know the difference. Why are vegetables so expensive? Because America doesn't grow that many. America is so nutritionally ignorant and has dug a hole so deep through it's stupidity that I just don't see it recovering any time soon. This ignorance has now become generational and there are no safety nets in place, institutional wise, in America to help assist people and turn this problem around. The Capitalistic system and America has abandoned its citizens for profit and now everyone is whinning, what happened? Is a little organic vegetable garden grown on the White House Lawn going to help. Yes, and I applaud the First Lady for taking action and at least trying. This obesity epidemic is the war on tobacco times 100. As I recall growing up I didn't see young children smoking but today most if not all are hooked on sugar and caffeine.

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