Let’s Move! How Fast Is It Moving Forward?

From menu changes to bike-friendly cities, The Root measures the outcomes of Michelle Obama's campaign.

Chuck Kennedy/Official White House photo
Chuck Kennedy/Official White House photo

It’s been more than two years since Michelle Obama launched her Let’s Move! campaign to fight childhood obesity, but don’t go looking for statistics on how many kids have slimmed down. Contrary to popular belief, the scope of the first lady’s efforts has never been about immediate results in pounds and inches lost, or how many pushups the average American middle schooler can execute.

Rather, the initiative is about generational change — designed with the goal that, a decade from now, our nation’s children will live in a profoundly different food and physical-fitness culture.

“When we started Let’s Move! we wanted to end our epidemic of childhood obesity in a generation,” said Mrs. Obama at a Let’s Move! event in March before staff at a New Hampshire community center. “So that kids growing up today would develop different habits and they would grow up healthier, and they would grow up with the tools and the information they would need to make good choices. And when we set this goal, we knew it was ambitious.”

After pleading her case to the private food sector, elected public officials, school administrators and celebrities, the first lady has seen improvements on several fronts. But how effective are these changes in the long run? The Root asked experts to weigh in on the campaign’s most prominent achievements.

Legislating School Lunches

When Michelle Obama launched Let’s Move! in February 2010, her first priority was improving school nutrition. After persistent campaigning, six months later that goal gained steam with the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (pdf) — legislation that, for the first time in 30 years, increased funding for school breakfasts and lunches above the inflation rate. The act also gave the Agriculture Department the authority to regulate nutrition for all foods regularly sold in schools, from the fare served on lunch lines to that sold in vending machines (but not, as some paranoid naysayers feared, at bake sales).

Those new standards, which will be phased in starting in the 2012-13 school year, include requirements to double the amounts of fruits and vegetables on a weekly basis, switch all grains to whole grains and offer milk in only fat-free or low-fat varieties. And 115,000 more low-income children were enrolled in school meal programs through a provision that reduced paperwork to establish eligibility by using Medicaid data to directly certify participants.  

“At the schools I’ve worked with, people are doing what needs to be done not only because they’ll get federal funding in preparing healthier meals but also because it’s the right thing to do,” Fran Meyer, a consultant for policy and program development in school health programming, told The Root. Meyer also acknowledged that there are funding challenges when the federal government pays, on average, $2.68 per child for each school meal — an amount that increases by 6 cents under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. “But our folks are doing the best they can for our kids.”