Is Mrs. Obama Afraid to Discuss the Real Causes of Childhood Obesity?

Fooducate thinks so.

Blogger Hemi Weingarten has a short but incisive post today critiquing the First Lady’s much anticipated keynote address at yesterday’s Partnership for a Healthier America inaugural summit.   Weingarten questions why Mrs. Obama focused almost exclusively on the need for increased physical exercise when, as Weingarten persuasively argues, it’s really our children’s food environment — driven by powerful corporate interests — underlying the obesity crisis.  He writes: “. . . it seems that she has realized the limits of her power to change the behavior of companies that manufacture sugary beverages, sugar laden cereals, and other kiddie delights.”

I have no doubt that this reasoning is exactly what motivated Mrs. Obama to stay mum about food in her speech.  Let’s recap just a few recent battles on the childhood obesity front in which the food industry emerged as the clear winner:

  • As I’ve reported about extensively in the past, federal efforts to rein in corporate advertising of junk food to children have been a dismal failure.  After a federal inter-agency working group (FTC, CDC, FDA and USDA) came up with purely voluntary (!) guidelines to prevent industry from pitching the worst foods to kids, Big Food took a two-pronged approach to fight back.  It lobbied the House GOP to effectively scotch the effort by including a provision in the FTC’s budget ordering the government “to study the potential costs and impacts of the guidelines before implementing them,” with the obvious hope that the guidelines will never re-emerge to see the light of day.  Industry also hastily announced it was improving its own voluntary guidelines (and I once showed you what a joke the old guidelines were) by applying a uniform nutritional standard on all participating companies instead of letting each come up with  its own standard.  But before you get excited about that idea, here are just a few of the foods that can still be freely advertised to kids under these “new and improved” uniform guidelines.
 Enough said.


  • More recently, Congress made clear that it’s far more concerned with placating the manufacturers of frozen pizza and the growers of potatoes than it is with improving the health of school children, when it refused to fund stricter school food nutrition regulations that would adversely affect these well-funded interests.   As a result, a tray of pizza and tater tots needs no other vegetable to qualify for federal reimbursement, flouting the very Institute of Medicine recommendations USDA was supposed to follow in coming up with the new rules.
  • And as recently as yesterday, fast food behemoth McDonald’s showed how easily and cleverly it could evade a hard-fought ordinance in San Francisco banning free toys in unhealthy kids’ meals.  Rather than improve the nutritional profile of its Happy Meals (the intent of the ban), effective today San Francisco franchisees will simply charge parents a token dime for the toy and continue with business as usual.   The fast food company may even garner some positive PR by donating all those dimes to the construction of a new Ronald McDonald House.  Brilliant.

Mrs. Obama has been one of our most outspoken advocates for improving children’s health and she and her Let’s Move! initiative have made some real headway.   The First Lady actively championed the passage of last year’s Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act, which (despite any weakening by Congress) is still a clear net gain in terms of improving the quality of and access to school food around the country.  She’s drawn national attention to gardening, cooking and the importance of family meals.   She’s worked with foundations and corporations to get more salad bars into schools.  When she addressed the National Restaurant Association last year she scolded them about their dismal children’s menu offerings (a cause near to my heart) and industry responded by making notable (if not perfect) improvements.  Corporations and other entities, from Wal-Mart to the YMCA, have made positive changes at her behest (even if for entirely cynical reasons).  (More Let’s Move! accomplishments summarized here.)

And let’s not forget that she’s withstood her share of right wing flak for even taking on the obesity issue in the first place.

But Mrs. Obama’s omission of  any real discussion of food in yesterday’s PHA speech was still notable, as was her silence in the aftermath of the pizza disgrace.   Both incidents raise the question of what we can realistically expect from any First Lady taking up this particular cause.  Indeed, there have always been vocal criticisms of all of her efforts, from arguments that they don’t go far enough to concern that Mrs. Obama is inadvertently giving PR cover to America’s worst corporate actors.

But TLT readers know that I am, at bottom, a pragmatist; I still would much rather have a First Lady in my corner than not, even if she’s sometimes an imperfect advocate.  My hope is that Mrs. Obama is consciously muting her message as the presidential election cycle heats up and that we’ll see a more full-throated approach from her after after the election is over (assuming she’s still in the East Wing).   But Weingarten’s overall point in his Fooducate post today remains critically important:

It’s much easier to get everyone to rally around MORE of something (in this case exercise) than convincing corporations to forfeit revenue streams by selling LESS junk food.

Until we realize this simple truth, childhood obesity will not disappear.

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  1. Kate says

    I commented on the Fooducate blog. Decreased physical activity is ONE of the causes of childhood obesity. Children today are much less active today than they were when I was a kid, and less active than probably any generation in history. I don’t see how we can discount that. We rode our bikes often, or were expected to walk to get to our friends houses. When it was nice out we were expected to be outdoors a good portion of the day. My husband lived in a rural area growing up, and in some ways he “ran wild” with his friends, exploring places on his bike…there was no moping around the house doing nothing.

    Things like Count Chocula were available when I was a kid. So were Lucky Charms and Trix. They were advertised on TV. Of course growing up in a house with no cable made TV much less appealing. My sister liked Count Chocula and I liked Frankenberry. I think my mom might have bought each a handful of times, but she generally scoffed at such products. Doritos and Cheetos were even around then.

    Exercise is also important in the delay/prevention of Type 2 diabetes.

    And if someone says I sound like a cranky old lady posting about the old days…well I probably do.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      I don’t disagree about the importance of exercise, Kate, but for her to address that particular group for 30 minutes and NOT talk about food seems like a questionable omission. Indeed, turning the conversation to activity is one classic technique the food industry uses to divert attention from their products and their marketing practices with respect to children.

  2. says

    I suspect her husband’s campaign handlers are advising her to avoid saying things that might interrupt the flow of campaign dollars from some of those very same “worst corporate actors”.

    That being said: I absolutely think that getting the kids some additional exercise time (and preferably NOT in the form of ‘regimented exercise’, for crying out loud the kids know what their bodies need more than we do!) is a worthwhile goal, and if this will help break the “perfect storm” that leads to obesity and early Type 2 diabetes, then so much the better IMO.


  3. says

    I sometimes feel like Mrs. O is damned if she do, damned if she don’t. Clearly there are politics involved with what she can and can’t say as we approach the 2012 election. But I admire her for taking on this issue and we should remember that people weren’t even talking childhood obesity 2-3 years ago (except for a few public health folks).

    Childhood obesity is a multifaceted problem that will require a multifaceted solution. We need to chip away at the issue from all sides. We did not get where we are now because of one single factor, nor overnight. A whole lot of factors have contributed to the problem: not enough good food, not enough exercise, not enough school recess, too much TV, too much driving to school and activities (and no walking), pitiful school lunch and fast food for breakfast and dinner, and of course, everyone’s too busy to cook or make time for family dinner. Pick your favorite policy and work on it, because it may all contribute a little bit to help the bigger problem in the end.

    Big Food, admittedly, is a big part of the problem. But Big Food and Wal-Mart are not going away. This week we saw that in full display as the San Fran McD’s toy ban was turned on its head. I think we have to work on the parents and the kids themselves. Educate them about food choices, empower them and help them understand the “real deal” behind their food choices. With food, the fast easy cheap way usually ends up costing you in the end, and unfortunately the price you pay is with your health, or your kids’.


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