There have been a lot of essays recently (and even a published anthology of essays) in which writers have shared their personal reflections on what Michelle Obama’s legacy has meant to them. In these last remaining days of the Obama administration, I wanted to share some thoughts of my own.
As of this spring, I’ll have spent seven years exclusively writing about and advocating for issues relating to child nutrition. So of course I’d be a fan of any First Lady who chose to highlight this same issue during her White House tenure. But here’s why I particularly loved Michelle Obama:
When you write about this stuff all the time, as I do, the first thing you learn is that there are few more intimate decisions than the food we choose for our kids. Just the slightest hint that someone is negatively judging the way we feed our children is enough to trigger a defensive – and sometimes quite ugly – response. (See, e.g., “Don’t Call Me a ‘Sanctimommy’ – the Latest Salvo in the Mommy Food Wars.”)
And it’s not just a personal issue. Even on a national scale, child nutrition policy has become depressingly politicized. A very clear line can be drawn between improved child nutrition and reduced healthcare costs (if you want to frame the issue in fiscal, not moral, terms), but we still operate under a false narrative that caring about kids’ health is the exclusive province of kale-loving, farmer’s-market-shopping liberal elites, while “real Americans” love junk food and don’t want the government “telling them what to feed their kids.”
If you have any doubt about this discouraging assessment, consider the fact that in the last Republican primary, not one but two candidates (Ted Cruz and Chris Christie) drew cheers at their campaign rallies by mocking the notion of healthier school meals. Or the fact that my state’s Agriculture Secretary, Sid Miller (once voted the second most-conservative member in the Texas legislature – no easy feat), managed to vault himself onto the national stage just by attacking a (nonexistent) ban on birthday cupcakes in Texas schools. For his efforts, the conservative National Review gleefully declared Miller’s bogus “cupcake amnesty” to be “further proof that Texas is the greatest state in the union.”
Yet, somehow, Michelle Obama managed to navigate these rocky shoals with grace and ease. From the very beginning, she made her interest in child nutrition personal and totally relatable to most American parents. She recounted how, as a busy working mom, she didn’t have much time or patience for healthy, scratch-cooked meals – until she got a wake-up call from her daughters’ pediatrician:
It wasn’t long ago that I was a working mom dashing from meetings and phone calls, ballet and soccer and whatever else. I felt like it was a miracle just to get through the day and get everybody where they were supposed to be. So . . . like many busy parents, I was shopping primarily for convenience and cost. I bought products that were pre-packaged, pre-cut, pre-cooked. If it was “pre,” I was getting it, because I was looking for anything that was quick and easy to prepare and to consume. . . . But I was also completely unaware that all that extra convenience sometimes made it just a little too easy for me to eat too much, for my kids to eat too much, and to eat too often. And like so many families, my family fell into the habit of living that “grab-and-go” lifestyle, eating more and more between meals. And slowly, all of those extra calories really just started to add up.
And throughout her campaign to advance her child nutrition goals, she continued to use only the lightest touch. There wasn’t a single moment of scolding or preaching or finger-wagging. Instead, there was a whole lot of dancing and push-upping and Ellen and Big Bird. And it worked. Surveys have shown that most American voters and parents have come around, now sharing her concern over childhood obesity and healthier school meals.
Of course, any time you praise Michelle Obama’s efforts, there are advocates who’ll quickly point out all the ways in which the Obama administration fell short on food policy issues. (A critical New York Times magazine piece by Michael Pollan, “Big Food Strikes Back: Why Did the Obamas Fail to Take on Corporate Agriculture?,” caused quite a stir last fall.)
And there have been disappointments – no question. When the frozen food lobby pushed to keep pizza a school food vegetable (thanks to its tomato paste), the White House pointedly stayed out of the fray. Ditto when potato growers fought to keep white potatoes on school menus, despite the fact that American kids already eat far too many. And, perhaps most discouragingly, there was the White House’s deafening silence when, back in 2012, the food industry crushed a set of purely voluntary guidelines to clean up the advertising of junk food to children.
But to harp on these failures is, in my opinion, churlish. Instead, I choose to reflect on all that Mrs. Obama did manage to accomplish from the East Wing – with limited staff and no actual power. In the last eight years, the First Lady:
- planted and promoted the White House kitchen garden, a hugely symbolic move which, we all have to remind ourselves, was actually controversial at the time.
- founded Let’s Move!, which has promoted nutrition and physical activity in a wide variety of settings and initiatives, including bringing salad bars to over three million school kids.
- willingly spent her political capital to push for a sweeping overhaul of outdated school meal nutrition standards, dramatically improving school meals for 31 million children each year.
- was a moving force behind the new and far more consumer-friendly Nutrition Facts label, which for the first time includes a separate entry for added sugars.
- was a force behind the Team FNV effort, which uses edgy marketing and popular celebrities to promote fruits and vegetables to the public.
- brokered a partnership between fruit and vegetable growers and the Sesame Street Workshop, allowing these producers to market their healthy foods to kids using popular Sesame Street characters free of charge – a licensing deal that would otherwise run into the “tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars.”
These are all major and praise-worthy achievements – and I’m not even mentioning many others, including those relating primarily to physical activity.
But as the Obamas pack up their belongings this week and get ready to leave the White House, its anyone’s guess as to what comes next. We already know that school food reform is at the very top of the House Freedom Caucus’s legislative hit list. Whether their agenda will be well received by President-elect Trump is a mystery. Some are worried the Trump administration will roll back all the progress we’ve made, while the new First Lady, Melania Trump, has so far refused to comment on whether she’ll continue Mrs. Obama’s work on child nutrition. Others are pinning their hopes on Ivanka Trump, who seems at least potentially interested in gardening and healthy eating.
Whatever happens, though, let’s pause and take a moment to give Michelle Obama her due. Entirely through her efforts, healthy eating and child nutrition are now part of the national conversation to an unprecedented degree. And, by all accounts, she isn’t done yet.
So, thanks, Mrs. O, for everything you’ve done over the last eight years to improve our children’s lives. And I can’t wait to see what you might do next.
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