Michelle Obama Knows Healthy Eating Isn't Just About Healthy Eating

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There’s a smart debate going around the internet on food policy, the pleasure principle, and the role that first lady Michelle Obama can play in curbing the obesity epidemic that has swept the United States in recent decades. Obama made a big speech addressing the matter at the Department of Health and Human Services this week. Her remarks—like her entire approach to food policy since moving to Washington—were casual, yet insistent, speaking not just to the federal employees but to all working families:

[M]any families are starting to feel like the cards are stacked against them.  It's really hard to make sure that your children are healthy and happy and safe and well fed.  And maybe it's because some of — some folks are working on a tight budget, and they feel like they just can't afford the kind of nutritious foods that are being recommended.  Maybe it's because folks are working long hours.  Can I get an "Amen" from HHS?

They struggle to find time to make a home-cooked meal.  Maybe they live in a community that doesn't have access to a supermarket where there's good fresh produce, and maybe the best thing that they have available is a food stand or a gas station or a convenience store to get their food.  Or maybe there aren't any safe places for kids to play, so it makes putting your kids in front of that Xbox a little more comforting and a little more of a better option.


Over at Grist, Tom Laskawy thinks that, behind the folksy, friendly delivery, Obama is ready for drastic measures—namely a plan to take down Big Food, one school lunch and sugar pop at a time. His thesis:

[I]ndications are that she’s quietly developing a set of policy recommendations to reform the food system. Obama Foodorama has been tirelessly reporting on these maneuvers, which have remained under the radar—even to the point of Mrs. Obama holding “secret meetings” between her policy team and USDA officials.

It’s a bold prediction. I’ve written myself on how food justice and healthy eating are a smart way for Obama to throw some weight around (no pun intended) from her East Wing perch. And her HHS speech makes clear that it’s crucial to fight fat within the communities of color that are not only surrounded by cheap, bad food but most culturally divorced from Obama’s message of fitness and good health. One in three kids, she pointed out, is overweight—and when it comes to black and hispanic children, it's half. So black people should care a whole lot more about the health disparities that arise as a result of food deserts, underfunded school lunches and sedentary habits promoted by modern culture.

British chef Jamie Oliver is trying hard to "put America's diet on a diet." Soda taxes are being proposed to cut the fat. So what’s the holdup? Obama seemed to get the psychological and behavioral difficulties. "When you're already overwhelmed with so much, with work and bills and everything on your plate, it's really hard to sort through all of the information that's out there to figure out how do you fundamentally change things in a way that's going to benefit your family."

Ta-Nehisi Coates has also made this point, recently arguing that there is something uniquely American, and maybe not that bad, about the relationship between food, fat, and poverty:

What about people who are born into hardship? Who are born into stress and born into eating as a way of ameliorating that stress? Who grow up in an environment where mostly everyone else does the same? And then this gets conflated with old ideas about food and money—the notion that "All You Can Eat" is a good thing.

There is a culture to being fat, and putting fresh veggies in the hood isn't enough to counter it. The culture is complicated—and it's more American than it is hood.


What will be enough?


Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.