Commentary: Michelle Obama takes on obesity

First, apologies to Michelle Obama: I short shrifted you on your stated goals as first lady.

I longed for your Ivy-league-educated, ex-hospital-executive self to aspire to more than taking a spade to the White House lawn, wearing cute cardigans and maintaining fabulously toned biceps.

And when you took on the tame sounding "Let's Move" initiative to encourage healthy eating and exercise for America's children, I squirmed, ready for disappointment. Somehow the campaign sounded so safely in the mold of the domesticated presidential wife. After all, who could be against waging battle against childhood obesity?

Well, now I get it.

One-third of U.S. children are overweight or obese. Weight-related health conditions that used to be the exclusive province of adulthood — diabetes, heart problems and high blood pressure — are now afflicting our children. In fact, kids today may be the first generation to have shorter lifespans than their parents.

To confront this problem full on, I fear, would mean undoing and remaking much of American society as we know it. (And your husband’s not having much luck in that department right now.)

We'd have to change how communities are designed and built (think sidewalks, parks, less reliance on driving everywhere). We'd have to make healthier groceries available and affordable to everybody; we'd have to change what’s served at school lunches, how foods are labeled — even how they’re grown and brought to market.

The initiative has already elicited wails of protest from the “Who moved my Twinkie?” get-government-out-of-my-refrigerator contingent. They decried the proposal to increase school lunch spending by $10 billion over the next decade, arguing that parents alone should influence what their children eat.

Um, if parents were doing such a hot job, the country wouldn’t be in this “shape.” Besides, that spending can save money in the long run. Avoidable obesity-related illnesses cost $150 billion a year to treat. The military recently fessed up to losing far too many otherwise good recruits because they are unhealthy and overweight.

Nonetheless, Obama was chided for calling childhood obesity an “epidemic.” A piece in National Review was titled “Federalizing Fat.”

On the other end of the spectrum, the coddle-the-children crew chastised Obama for letting slip the term “diet.” As if the mere mention of the word would drive legions of image-obsessed young girls into paroxysms of binging and purging. Eventually, those voices simmered down, realizing Obama is a well-placed ally despite her blunder of talking too openly about her own daughters’ eating habits.

In March, the first lady took her show on the road, to Mississippi, which has the distinction of “fattest state,” although one wonders how that is measured.

Addressing a group of middle school students, the first lady made a point easy enough for that pre-algebra crowd to follow: “Here in the state of Mississippi, I think you’re spending about $750 million each year to treat diseases that don’t even have to exist. So that’s the bad news — right?”

The children listened attentively as Obama explained her concern, “not as first lady, but as a mom.”

No doubt there were a few grins as she continued, slapping the guilt firmly where children like it — and, in this case, where it belongs. “We know that a lot of this is our fault, the grownups — right? This isn’t on you all — right?”

But appearances before gaggles of adoring children will be the easy part for the first mom. She plans to meet with food manufacturers, and who knows whether even the most ramped-up rhetoric can do anything toward systematically changing how America buys and eats.

While her husband wages his own David vs. Goliath battle to achieve sensible health care reform, Michelle is facing an equally daunting adversary — our fat, a tendency toward inactivity, our love of sugar highs and carbo-overload lows, along with the industries and mentalities that keep our love handles in place.