Despite right-wing fears, one year after the first lady's childhood-obesity campaign, our junk food is still safe. Here's a look at what it's actually done.
Happy first anniversary of first lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign!
To mark the occasion on Wednesday, Mrs. Obama visited an Atlanta elementary school to highlight its healthy eating programs and spoke at North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Ga., encouraging parents to advocate for a healthier nation.
"We have a voice," she said to the congregations of both North Point and Ray of Hope Christian Church, one of the leading African-American churches in Atlanta. "When we come together to use that voice, we can change the way companies do business. We can change the way Congress makes laws. ... And today I want to urge everyone to keep using that voice, keep standing up and demanding something better for our kids."
The first lady's rallying cry may have sounded foreboding to conservative critics (Sarah Palin, Michelle Malkin, Glenn Beck ... ), who claim Let's Move! is the nanny state run amok. But despite widespread fears that the initiative would ban school bake sales, one year later, our junk food is still safe.
A few things have changed, though, including:
School nutrition: The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed, authorizing $4.5 billion for school nutrition changes. Among other provisions, the law gives USDA the authority to set nutrition standards for all foods regularly sold in schools (think lunch lines and vending machines), and increases the number of low-income children enrolled in school meal programs.
Fresh food access: Wal-Mart partnered with Let's Move! for a five-year initiative in which the grocery giant pledged to offer more nutritious products, as well as lower the cost of fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods for its 140 million weekly customers.
Physical activity (to be continued ...): The first lady has acknowledged that not all kids have safe places to run and play. According to her office, the campaign is working with mayors and community groups to leverage funds for more parks, playgrounds and community centers.
Just 19 more years to go toward Michelle Obama's lofty goal of ending childhood obesity in a generation -- or, more specifically, returning America to a childhood-obesity rate of 5 percent by 2030. Currently about 31 percent of American children are overweight, with 17 percent identified as obese. Black children are 30 percent as likely to be overweight as their white counterparts.
Obviously it'll take more than the first lady's platform to reach the 2030 goal, as parents make their own choices. But with no plans to "get off our back," as Sarah Palin put it, she's determined to do as much as she can to help us get there.
Cynthia Gordy is the Washington reporter for The Root.
At President Obama's White house meeting with African-American public officials, details were slim -- and an agenda seemingly nonexistent.
Less than two months after his last sit-down with the National Policy Alliance, on Tuesday President Obama met again with the group of African-American advisers. A coalition of 10 -- nine of which represent black public officials, including the National Conference of Black Mayors and the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, plus the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies think tank -- NPA also met with Cabinet members and senior administration officials.
Countering the perception that the White House steers clear of such organizations, lest the president appear "too black," NPA additionally holds weekly phone conferences with White House advisers.
So what did they discuss with Obama on Tuesday? According to its members, roughly: "Keep on doin' what you're doin'."
"The president has established priorities, and we're here to support what he's doing," said Mayor Robert Bowser of East Orange, N.J., and head of the National Conference of Black Mayors. He was one of several NPA representatives who participated in a post-meeting media roundtable that mostly applauded Obama's efforts.
Certainly, the body acknowledged that many African-American communities are struggling, with 15.7 percent unemployment, drastic foreclosures and a crumbling infrastructure. And their overall response was to tout existing dollars from Obama-led initiatives that are designed to address such concerns -- things like green-job training, prisoner re-entry programs, and increased funding for community colleges and trade schools. "We found out about a lot of programs today that we didn't know about," Bowser said.
On the matter of cuts in the president's upcoming 2012 budget, the assembled NPA members didn't sound remarkably worried about potentially adverse effects on constituents. "The president said it's going to be a tough budget year, but they will try to protect the core, most important items," said Kansas State Legislator Barbara Ballard, head of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators. In fact, she stressed, he's making increased investments in clean energy and education.
To get more precise, I asked if they discussed the preview of the president's 2012 budget, provided last week by Office and Management and Budget Director Jacob Lew. Two out of the three budget-trimming ideas that Lew mentioned are for programs that disproportionately affect poor urban communities: community-development block grants, which finance activities like affordable housing and anti-poverty efforts, and community-action programs (the kind that Obama the community organizer used to work with himself).
I wondered if they, too, found it alarming that the most specific items on the chopping block so far directly aid the people that have borne the brunt of the economic crisis. They pointed out that everybody's going to have to cut something.
"Today, in the economic conditions that we find ourselves in, every community in America -- every county, city, school district -- is cutting back," said Webster Guillory, assessor of Orange County, Calif., and chairman of the National Organization of Black County Officials. "All Americans are participating in the suffering of cutbacks. Now, in many respects, it is affecting African Americans disproportionately ... but we're not against taking a look at how we provide services."
To get a sense of the agenda, if any, that the NPA had going into their meeting, another reporter asked if they'd laid out a set of specific priorities that they don't want to see get slashed. Apparently the meeting didn't go into such details, instead focusing on the bigger picture of Obama's innovation agenda pitched in his State of the Union address.
I have to say, the post-meeting recap felt a little strange. I understand the inclination to take a productive, "we're in this together" tone of forging ahead. But with so many black folks at emergency-level economic hardship, it seems as if they missed an opportunity to agitate for unique concerns. Unlike other groups that have met with the president at the White House -- such as Latino and LGBT coalitions, which have drawn their lines on precise issues -- the NPA appeared to have no clear meeting agenda at all.
Absent from the media roundtable was Congressional Black Caucus Chair Emanuel Cleaver. Though he attended the meetings with President Obama and his Cabinet officials, he skipped the follow-up chat and released a statement instead. His take was noticeably different.
"We had fruitful conversations on job creation and the devastating impact the economy has had on the African American community," Cleaver wrote. "Over 15.7% of African Americans are out of work and that is unacceptable. We remain committed to working with the president to ensure that our community has equal access to opportunities.
"I personally expressed my concern to President Obama on the pending cuts to Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), which provides funding for local governments to carry out a wide range of community development activities ranging from housing to economic development and public service. I believe that this is a time when we should increase funding for CDBG, not cut it.
"Our community continues to suffer tremendously from the recession, and we will be one of the last to recover. There is no fairness to rebuilding our economy on the backs of Americans who can least afford it."
Cynthia Gordy is the Washington reporter for The Root.
African Americans have the highest rates of HIV in the United States. We talked to a White House official to find out what's being done to help get those numbers down, and how we should regard news reports of a "cure" for HIV.
Today, National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, we are reminded that African Americans have the highest rates of HIV in the United States. Let’s also take a look at what's being done to help pull those numbers down.
Last summer the White House announced the National HIV/AIDS Strategy, an approach to fighting the epidemic that recognizes its disproportionate impact in black communities. The plan has three primary goals: reduce new HIV infections by 25 percent within five years, increase access to care, and reduce HIV-related health disparities. The basic idea is that, by redirecting the $19 billion spent annually on domestic AIDS to the populations most vulnerable to infection, prevention efforts will be more effective.
I talked to Jeffrey Crowley, director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy, about the strategy’s implementation so far, what gains have actually been made in fighting domestic AIDS, and why it’s too soon to celebrate reports of a so-called "cure."
The Root: When the National HIV/AIDS Strategy was announced last July, President Obama gave leading federal agencies (including HHS, Justice and HUD) 150 days to come up with their implementation strategies. Is anything happening now?
Jeffrey Crowley: They were due in early December. December and January has been a period for the Offices of National AIDS Policy and Management and Budget to look at these plans and request revisions if necessary. We’re also working on synthesizing the plans together, and at some point in the near future we’ll be reporting to the public on what’s in them.
TR: The country has already been spending $19 billion annually on domestic AIDS prevention, care, and research, but we rarely hear any promising news. What evidence is there that existing HIV prevention efforts have worked?
JC: I hope that the American people aren’t too cynical in what we’ve done. We’ve gotten a lot of things right in how we respond to the epidemic. We’ve maintained a strong national response for 30 years. We’ve maintained a significant financial investment. We’ve also seen the results. We’ve seen HIV mortality fall once we got effective drugs. The number of people becoming infected in this country each year has fallen dramatically. At one point we were counting about 140,000 Americans infected with HIV each year. Now it’s fallen to about 56,000. We’ve virtually eliminated HIV transmission among newborns. We’ve seen dramatic drops in HIV transmission rates among injection drug users, particularly among black injection drug users, and infection rates are holding steady for heterosexuals.
TR: Since it will take more than federal intervention to fight the epidemic, what would you like to see happen at state and local levels?
JC: Before going into that, even at the federal level I’m not just trying to defend what we’ve done. We want people to know that this country may have gotten off to a slow start, but we’ve developed effective drugs and lowered infection rates in response to this epidemic. But certainly, President Obama believes that the federal government still needs to make a stronger effort. But we won’t be successful if you’re getting leadership out of the federal government and the same response [as before] from everybody else. We’re hoping that state and local governments will start to do a better job integrating their planning for the resources they have.
In the summer we launched, using new investments from the Affordable Care Act’s prevention and public health fund, a program at the CDC called Enhanced Comprehensive HIV Prevention Planning. We’re looking at the 12 jurisdictions in the United States that are responsible for 44 percent of living AIDS cases. So, just 12 metropolitan areas – including DC, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Miami, Atlanta, Houston and Dallas – are responsible for nearly half the HIV epidemic. We’re funding them to do some initial work on how they can do a better job using all the resources in their community, and funding the interventions that are going to be most effective. This is exciting not just for these 12 jurisdictions, but for what it can teach us about all of our responses in the country.
TR: In December, German researchers claimed to have cured a man with HIV through stem cell transplants – but then we didn’t hear much more about it. And at the World AIDS conference last summer, researchers announced news of a vaginal gel to protect women against HIV. How realistic are these breakthroughs really?
JC: There are three things going on. You mentioned that so-called cure and the vaginal gel. The other big thing were prep results that came out in December, which provided proof of concept that if you give HIV negative individuals any retroviral medication, that can be an effective way to prevent new infections.
I think this idea of a cure is fascinating from a medical perspective, and it probably tells scientists some things, but it was only in one patient. People who looked at the study later have raised questions about some of it. So, I don’t know how big of a deal it is, as far as having current clinical applications to our response to HIV.
The other two trials are very exciting because they offer the promise of a new tool for prevention to be added to our current tool chest. The prep result studies show that it was effective in gay and bisexual men. We have a lot to learn, including whether we can apply it to other populations and how to apply it effectively. But it is fair to say that this past year was a banner year for HIV research. We still have a lot to learn, but some of these important investments are paying off. We think this will provide exciting direction for the future.
As Democrats prepare for their 2012 convention in North Carolina, public schools in the state are turning back the clock on desegregation.
First Lady Michelle Obama announced Tuesday that the 2012 Democratic National Convention will be held in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“Charlotte is a city marked by its southern charm, warm hospitality, and an ‘up by the bootstraps’ mentality that has propelled the city forward as one of the fastest-growing in the South,” Mrs. Obama wrote in an email to Democratic supporters explaining the decision.
There’s also the fact that in 2008 her husband narrowly defeated Senator John McCain in North Carolina, winning by 12,000 votes. The choice of Charlotte signals President Obama's intention to compete for the state again, and the South in general.
One can only hope that the Dems' focus on North Carolina will also draw attention to a disturbing trend in some of the state’s public schools. In 2002, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district responded to budget cuts by eliminating a longstanding busing program designed to ensure diversity. The move effectively re-segregated schools by race and income – and now another district is following suit.
In Wake County, which includes the city of Raleigh, the school board recently struck down its program of integrating schools based on socioeconomic status. By avoiding concentrations of poverty, Wake County schools have drawn high-quality teachers throughout the entire region. Supporters of the program note that its students, of all races, outperform state and national averages.
Backed by national Tea Party conservatives, the Wake County school board voted in January to eliminate the plan in favor of creating neighborhood schools. Portraying the program as unwanted "social engineering" that causes frequent school reassignments, board members argue that re-segregating schools will actually benefit poor students by making their problems easier to see.
“If we had a school that was, like, 80 percent high-poverty, the public would see the challenges, the need to make it successful,” board member John Tedesco told the Washington Post. “Right now we have diluted the problem, so we can ignore it.”
So, you see, concentrating poor kids in separate schools is for their own good!
Not so convinced is U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan who, in a letter to the Washington Post, called the backslide to segregated schools troubling. The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights has also started an investigation of the Wake County school board action.
“In an increasingly diverse society like ours, racial isolation is not a positive outcome for children of any color or background,” wrote Duncan. “School is where children learn to appreciate, respect and collaborate with people different from themselves. I respectfully urge school boards across America to fully consider the consequences before taking such action. This is no time to go backward.”
With a federal judge's strikedown of health care reform, does that mean it's a wrap for the law?
So ... is health care reform over now?
Going by some reactions to a Florida federal judge’s recent decision, you might think something like that. On Monday, U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson declared the entire Affordable Care Act unconstitutional based on the individual mandate requiring most Americans to buy insurance starting in 2014. But hours after the news broke, White House officials swooped in to say, Nothing to see here, folks.
In a conference call, senior administration officials pointed out that the Florida ruling stemmed from one of many state lawsuits filed immediately after the bill was signed. Fourteen of those were dismissed. Of the three other decisions that have been handed down, two judges ruled in favor of the law. A Virginia judge found the mandate to be unconstitutional, but also said that implementation of the rest of the law could proceed.
Furthermore, officials claimed, the legal arguments against the law presented in the Florida case – relying on rhetoric about the Founding Fathers and the Boston Tea Party, as well as slippery slope scenarios about the government mandating people to eat broccoli – are flippin’ strange.
"History and the facts are on our side," wrote Stephanie Cutter, assistant to the president and deputy senior advisor, on the White House blog. "Similar legal challenges to major new laws -- including the Social Security Act, the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act -- were all filed and all failed."
Although the Obama administration, which is appealing the decision, is holding fast to their view that Judge Vinson doesn’t have a leg to stand on, the case is expected to next go to the U.S. Supreme Court. And Vinson believes his decision is sound enough to stop the health care overhaul in the 26 states named in the lawsuit.
Should the Supreme Court agree with the decision, it wouldn't stop just the individual mandate coming in 2014, but also the provisions that have already gone into effect. At risk are tax breaks to help small businesses buy health insurance for employees, young adults being allowed to stay on their parents’ policies until age 26, and a new rule barring providers from dropping people who get sick.
So, no, the Florida decision doesn’t exactly cue the death knell for health care reform. But if Justice Anthony Kennedy – whose vote often serves as a tie-breaker in the split Supreme Court – agrees with Vinson, then that will definitely sound the alarm.