Can Michelle Obama put America's children on a diet?

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 27, 2010 

WASHINGTON — If there's any doubt that opposing childhood obesity is a political winner, as well as a noble cause, Michelle Obama's upcoming trip to Mississippi, the nation's most obese state, may be more proof.

Gov. Haley Barbour, a portly Republican who's mulling a challenge to President Barack Obama in 2012, will join the first lady at a Wednesday event in Jackson promoting school nutrition and exercise. Barbour, a former lobbyist who heads the Republican Governors Association, recently said that if he lost 40 pounds, it would mean he's running for president or has cancer.

Before heading south, Obama will speak Monday in Washington to the School Nutrition Association's Legislative Action Conference. These appearances follow others that have gotten attention in recent weeks.

As Obama settles into her post as the public face of the administration's new "Let's Move!" campaign to combat the growing problem of childhood obesity, advocates are watching how her role will evolve — and, ultimately, how aggressive or successful her husband's administration will be at changing the standards of the food and beverage industries, schools and unhealthy eaters and their enablers.

Will the Obama administration push taxes on sodas? Sugary juices and chocolate milk? Restrict farm subsidies related to corn and sweeteners? How will regulators deal with oft-maligned high-fructose corn syrup? Will meat and animal fat get new scrutiny? What new food and beverage labeling might appear?

Should health insurance rates reflect adults' and children's diets? Should food advertising on TV be reined in, and in this deficit-ridden era, how much money can the federal government spend on some of the initiatives the Obamas favor to get more fresh and health food into inner city markets and school lunch programs?

The first indications will come this year. Reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act is overdue. The Food and Drug Administration is considering standards for new front-of-package labeling.

In his Feb. 9 memo establishing an interagency task force on childhood obesity, President Obama set a 90-day deadline for a strategic plan. That effort will pull together his economic and budget advisors, as well as officials on the first lady's staff and in departments that oversee everything from health and food and drug regulation to education and agriculture. The task force is led by the president's domestic policy adviser, not the first lady.

Penny Lee, a senior adviser and spokeswoman for the non-profit Campaign to End Obesity, a coalition that includes charitable and corporate healthcare interests, said administration officials have told advocates that Michelle Obama "won't be doing legislation, she won't be going to the Hill; she's trying to change the environment. This is a platform, a movement, a cause she will be championing, but this will not be her initiative."

Lee said the first lady's public efforts to date, from her White House vegetable garden and farmer's market visits to her talks with school children and parents and her recent speeches on obesity, have been "wonderful."

Past administrations have talked about child nutrition and obesity, but they didn't act in as comprehensive a fashion as the current administration seems to be embracing, Lee said. While she's hopeful, she said, "This effort is just starting."

Former Food and Drug Administrator David Kessler said that more legislation and government regulation probably are essential to getting obesity in children and adults under control.

However, Kessler, who in recent years has been as passionate about teaching Americans about the dangers of overeating and junk food as he once was about tobacco regulation, said that government intervention won't work without a parallel effort to change society's norms about how much and what kind of food and drink to consume.

About one in three American children is overweight or obese today, with asthma, heart disease and cancer on the rise as a result, and related health costs in the billions each year.

Obama's spokeswoman role on that front has been "pitch-perfect" so far, Kessler said.

"Laws, legislation, policy is all important, but how you look at it is key. Do you need to do front-of-package labeling? Absolutely. Menu labeling? Yes. Do you need to change farm subsidies? Yes. Does the FDA have to act? Yes. The CDC? Yes. The USDA? Those things will come. But she said 'it's important,' and that's how you start.

"There's a cook in a school, I can assure you, somewhere in the United States, who listened to the first lady and is changing because of it. Tackling obesity and childhood obesity is as hard as anything we've ever done. You can live without cigarettes, but you can't live without food."

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