The White House Kitchen Garden is frozen under, but, this Black History Month, first lady Michelle Obama is once more using food to address the epidemic of childhood obesity that has gripped the country and, she said in a recent speech to the United States’ Conference on Mayors, “never fails to take my breath away.”
It should. The statistics are grim: One-third of young people in the United States are overweight or obese, and one-third will suffer from diabetes at some point in their lives. In the Latino and black American community, those numbers go up to almost 50 percent. According to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, children today spend seven hours a day using some kind of media device. At the same time, school lunches are fattier, school gym classes are shorter or nonexistent, and the erosion of 1950s “neighborhood” culture means the days of playing outside until supper are long gone.
Today, said Obama, “medical experts are predicting that this generation is on track to have a shorter lifespan than their parents.” Not only does decreased productivity and life expectancy endanger long-term American economic prosperity, diet-related diseases like asthma, diabetes, hypertension and certain cancers are slowly adding to the national health care burden.
All of this impacts the black community more severely than the rest of America: Black men are 30 percent more likely to die from heart disease, and black women are 1.7 times more likely to be obese than their white counterparts. Black neighborhoods in major cities have been shown to have fewer fresh food options and grocery stores than the average community. And according to the government’s Office of Minority Health, black Americans have reduced access to quality health care. Children who don’t eat well are performing worse in school. At an event with the first lady at a Virginia YMCA, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said: "the unhealthier we are as a nation the more our health care costs will continue to rise," adding that the Obama administration has "not only a moral obligation but economic imperative to begin to make a change."
Perhaps fittingly, Obama has chosen Black History Month to make her stand, for “smart, strategic efforts to help our kids lead active, healthy lives right from the beginning.” By starting young and staying firm, she hopes to slow the impact of the killer diet that threatens all Americans.
In addition to her powerful husband and the first black female surgeon general, Regina Benjamin, Obama has a growing body of supporters in the expanding sustainable food movement. Her year of outreach—toiling in the White House garden with ordinary schoolchildren, or making a guest appearance on an episode of Iron Chef—has had the effect of humanizing a lifestyle that had seemed the province of Whole Foods’ elites.
“Eating food that is tasty and produced by the right people … is not just for foodies. We all eat,” says Alice Waters, the pioneering California restaurateur and food activist who has worked with Obama’s staff on healthy eating initiatives. “She’s bringing much needed attention to the issue,” says Brian Lacayo, a chef at Washington, D.C.’s Good Stuff Eatery, which Obama has visited with her family. Josh Viertel, founder of Slow Food USA, sees Obama’s fight against childhood obesity as an opportunity to kill many birds with one stone: “Families are struggling for ways to spend more time together; schools are struggling with behavior issues; and at the same time we’re struggling with the environmental impact and struggling with children’s health,” he says. “If you can fix this one thing, it has strings that tie to all of these other problems.”
That may be easier said than done. America’s problem with food is equally logistical—a riddle for government—and behavioral—a matter of changing habits that have become an existential threat to the richest nation on the planet. The good news is that smart policy solutions are being debated in Washington, and, despite the national (and international) spotlight that Obama has brought to the trendy, health food movement, many solutions are local.
The first lady's effort will focus on public-private partnership in combating childhood obesity. In her January speech announcing the initiative, Obama urged local mayors to join the fight: “It’s going to take all of us—businesses and nonprofits; community centers and health centers; teachers and faith leaders; coaches and parents,” she said, “to help families make common-sense changes so our kids can get, and stay, healthy.”
The tools for fighting fat run the gamut. Simple scheduling changes—such as giving kids recess before lunchtime—have been shown to increase the likelihood that they will choose vegetables and milk over chips and soda. A mayor in Texas has begun issuing pedometers to students in an effort to get them to walk more. Publishing calorie counts in restaurant menus likewise attempts to nudge adults toward better choices. Some fixes are more intrusive. In Maryland, a legislator has proposed a freeze on new operating licenses for fast-food restaurants in neighborhoods with a "high index of health disparities"—which, in Prince George’s County, means black residents. Michelle Rhee, chancellor of schools in majority-black Washington, D.C., has hired an ex-chef and consultant to advise her administration on how to improve the student diet.
Perhaps the biggest intervention, however, is in the substance of a bill funding school lunches, currently on ice in the U.S. Congress. The bill would give the U.S. Food and Drug Administration the authority to regulate all food sold or consumed in a school environment. This means that principals, working with the FDA, could ban trans fats and sugary sodas, mandate that food be sourced from local farmers, or stop serving 12-year-olds deep-fried everything in the cafeteria.
Focusing on school lunches is important for two reasons: Increasingly, children—especially poor children who qualify for free lunches—are eating more meals under state supervision. In addition, the purchasing power of the national schools system and local school districts makes obtaining locally grown fresh foods and vegetables much cheaper. According to an aide to Ms. Waters, there has been some discussion of assisting American military bases, which have purchasing power arguably greater than that of the public schools system, in promoting the use of local ingredients and fresh options as well. Such an innovative step could help the first lady, who has also made outreach to military families a part of her portfolio, stand behind her recent assertion, at a speech at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, that “the quality of the lives of our military and their families means a great deal.”
No matter what the outcome in Congress, local lawmakers appreciate Obama’s leadership on the issue. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who says obesity is a “very serious issue” in his city, is trotting out a health initiative that will target both diet and smoking. “Our efforts will only be enhanced by having the first lady of the country working with us,” he said. The initiative will help policymakers “see what is already happening on the ground, and … not try to replicate or even dictate from the federal government back to the cities, but find out what we’re doing and support it at scale.”
The conversation that Obama has begun has already helped recast the very idea of obesity. “I have come to understand hunger as not just starvation but as malnutrition,” says Nina Vizcarrondo, an assistant producer of Hungry in America, a food documentary to be released in 2010. “It’s hard visually for people to understand hunger as obesity, but it really is one and the same,” she continues. “This initiative puts the focus on health.”
Dayo Olopade is Washington reporter for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.