The Nation: Thumbs Down On Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move?”

I wanted to share with you a very good article in an upcoming issue of The Nation which assesses the progress – or lack thereof – made by Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative in combating childhood obesity.

In a balanced and thorough assessment of the First Lady’s efforts, the article highlights both her early gains as well as her initiative’s seeming retreat in recent months as Let’s Move! shifted its focus from food reform to exercise.  That change in course is seen by some critics (rightly, I think) as a desire to avoid conflict with Big Food – and its powerful lobbying arm – in the midst of a presidential election year.   The article also pointedly asks whether Let’s Move! has provided political cover and invaluable PR to corporate actors like Walmart and Disney without getting sufficiently meaningful reforms in return.   The Nation piece ultimately concludes that few if any truly significant changes have been made by the food industry as a result of Ms. Obama’s program.

But the fact that Ms. Obama can’t (or won’t) wage war with Big Food has never surprised me.  Above all else, the First Lady strikes me as a savvy pragmatist, pushing for reforms only where there are clear openings and likely pay-offs.  That explains her active involvement in the child nutrition bill reauthorization in 2010 which led to dramatic improvements in school food this year.  But she also backs off when she deems the political price too high, as when the White House summarily caved in to industry demands in the battle last year over the voluntary regulation of children’s food advertising.  That latter episode was deeply disheartening to those of us who care about our children’s food environment, but at the same time I never expected Ms. Obama, a First Lady whose hands are tied by her husband’s political aspirations, to be the rabble-rousing activist of our dreams.

For me, the bottom line is this:  no one in the country has done more than Ms. Obama to bring the issue of childhood obesity front and center in the national consciousness.   That she can’t fix the problem from the East Wing is unfortunate, though predictable, and it doesn’t negate the importance of what she has been able to achieve in the last four years.

Take a look at the Nation piece and let me know what you think in a comment below.

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  1. Kristina says

    I agree with you. The fact that she is shining a spotlight on the issue will change the course of events. The fact that there are critics will only enhance that, as it keeps the conversation going. It’s going to be a long process, and she has done the best she could be expected to do to get it started.

  2. Patti Reis says

    Very thoughtfully written. She can’t be everything we necessarily want her to be right now. Who knows, maybe someday (hopefully a tad over 4 years from now), when her husband is no longer the President, she will take an even more active role.

  3. says

    I didn’t finish the article (full disclosure!) but something struck me as I read.
    Yesterday, I saw an article talking about the triumphs the City of Philadelphia has had in reducing childhood obesity….with the effects of a multi-pronged, full-city, cooperative program being seen NOW. That program was started in 1999.
    It seems to me to be rather impatient and unfair to expect that the First Lady could have had a significantly measurable impact on the rates of childhood obesity in AN ENTIRE NATION in less than four years, if a committed city like Philly has taken over a decade to see any real shift in its own populace. I also think that we have a tendency to minimize the achievements that have been made. Is the new School Lunch Program perfect? Not by a long shot. Is it possibly better now, and moving in a more positive direction, than it was before? Yes. And that’s a huge accomplishment, especially since the thing hadn’t been touched in more than a generation prior.
    Also, the Wal-Mart thing is a big deal, I think. I don’t like Wal-Mart and I never will. However, it’s not just smart and shrewd of the First Lady, but NECESSARY, that she make deals — however unsavory we may find them — with Wal-Mart in order to create effective and substantive shifts for the majority of those in crisis. Wal-Mart is where lots and lots of lower-income people get their groceries. In many cases, it’s the only place they CAN get groceries. And it has the buying power and the clout to get into neighborhoods that have been food deserts and provide a place for shoppers to go — so it’s absolutely crucial that somebody, anybody, make at least small steps towards ensuring that what is offered in those Wal-Mart stores is not just junk.
    We’re not there yet and we won’t be there for a long time. But let’s give Mrs. Obama due credit for carefully playing a difficult hand and at least putting this conversation front and center for our country’s parents and policy makers. For too long politics has been silent on the subject of American health. No more.

  4. says

    I agree, the situation is still disheartening, but like you and others, I think we should give Mrs. Obama a lot of credit for getting so much attention for this issue. It’s always about baby steps, no matter how impatient we may be. Glad there IS a conversation, now let’s keep it going!

    • says

      Agreed. To expect Mrs. Obama to somehow “cure” childhood obesity in a matter of a few years is as ridiculous as expecting Mrs. Bush to do the same thing with childhood illiteracy. While no fan of the Obamas politically, I do applaud her efforts in this area, and hopefully people (here and elsewhere) will keep the momentum going.


  5. bw1 says

    Interesting that you should see a shift in emphasis from food to exercise as a retreat and a capitulation to “big food.” Activity level is clearly the independent variable in America’s obesity problem, given that a 1950’s diet is just as bad as anything seen today. Prior generations had butter and salt and deep frying, and used a lot more of all three, but they did NOT have XBox’s and 55″ flatscreens in which to lose themselves.

    Given that calls for increased activity place the onus on decisions by individuals, and that your food-based crusade focuses solely on coercive, government based control on peoples’ food options, your motives are suspect. Your preference for a food emphasis, aimed primarily at corporations and institutions seems based more in your collectivist, statist, and authoritarian political leanings than in any sound science on how to combat obesity.

    • says

      Sorry, but I’m going to have to disagree with you on several points.

      Number 1: our diet has changed significantly since the 1950s (when I was born) – back then, my mom (and lots of moms) scratch-made a lot of meals. There were some canned/frozen foods, TV dinners were just coming out, but we didn’t have a plethora of fast-food eateries around. HFCS wasn’t in almost everything we put in our stomachs. “Genetically-modified” foods were still the stuff of science-fiction. So, activity is NOT “the independent variable” (what does that even mean?) in our obesity problem.

      Number 2: Speaking of activity: Yes, kids get less activity now than we did back then, but it isn’t all a matter of “individual choice”. “Free play” periods (also called “recess”) is but a memory, and even Phys Ed has been cut back – partially because they don’t let the kids shower after PE, partially because they are too busy prepping the kids for the next high-stakes test under NCLB. And, if you let your own kid play outside, you had better be right there, hovering over them, lest a neighbor turn you in to the local PD for “Child Endangerment”.

      I have worked with various medical professionals over the years, combatting my own obesity. It isn’t a simple matter, as each person is an individual, and there is no “one size fits all” cause (or cure.) It seems, however, that we are the victim of our own success, in a way: the very technology and processes that allow us an unprecedented amount of “food security” seem to be working against us, as we are biologically conditioned over millennia to survive in a world where “food insecurity” is the norm. That, and the fact that more of us survive into adulthood, where we can pass along our probably less-than-ideal genes to a new generation…


      • bw1 says

        #1 scratch made and natural don’t equate to healthy. Half a century ago butter was slathered on everything. Fried chicken made in a cast iron skillet full of lard at home is no less fattening, and perhaps more so, than KFC’s fried in a stainless steel pot of vegetable oil. Oh, and if you’re confused by the term “independent variable,” then you’re really not qualified to comment on scientific matters like the impact of genetically modified foods.

        #2 There you go showing the collectivist, statist, and authoritarian bent of which I spoke – assuming that the only physical activity is that which is institutionally facilitated. HOW ABOUT WHAT KIDS DO WHEN THEY GET OUT OF SCHOOL? 50 years ago, they played ball in the back yard, now they kill zombies on the flat screen. The average weekly number of hours kids spend in front of a screen is documented to have risen dramatically in the last few generations – that has nothing to do with NCLB.

        I know all about personal battles with obesity. Went from 184 to 140 in 30 days, during which, every Saturday, I consumed enough at the local Ponderosa buffet to make the manager ask how much longer I was staying. A few months later, after my first triathlon, I noticed, the Burger King near the race venue was jam packed with slender people with numbers written on their arms and legs, slamming down whoppers and fries. If you burn it, you can eat it.

        Years ago, a major news weekly rated how healthy all the college meal programs were. The two schools ranked dead last were West Point and Annapolis – worst in calories, fats, carbs, you name it. The author actually wondered why they had the lowest obesity rates and the healthiest students. Apparently he missed that they ran an average of ten miles a day.

  6. says

    I disagree with the lowfat/nonfat food recommendations (and some other parts of the current school lunch requirements), even for obese children. More exercise and less screen time is good, that is common sense. But I think what has been far more damaging to the American diet is the gradual increase in sugary and highly processed foods. Butter is better for you than margarine. Whole eggs better than egg beaters liquid product. Muffins sweetened naturally with honey or applesauce better than ones made with hfcs. I lean libertarian and distributist, personally, but if my government is going to offer free food to poor children that need it, how about let’s make it natural and healthy and good-tasting? Not impossible. I’m happy that at least the current program is pushing for more fresh fruit and veg. It’s a start.

    • bw1 says

      If the government, which does not ask for anyone’s voluntary buy-in, is feeding kids, whose idea of healthy should they follow?
      In your comment, you cite at least three points which are not settled, and on which medical consensus has reversed itself at least twice that I can remember, and with which most of the “regulars” disagree.

      The problem is that the government shouldn’t be feeding anyone, except perhaps soldiers. Also, if you truly lean libertarian, shouldn’t government assistance be less than ideal, to motivate people to get off of it?

    • bw1 says

      If the government, which does not ask for anyone’s voluntary buy-in, is feeding kids, whose idea of healthy should they follow?
      In your comment, you cite at least three points which are not settled, and on which medical consensus has reversed itself at least twice that I can remember, and with which most of the “regulars” disagree.

  7. jackson says

    We are a free country . We should be able to eat what we want, when we want, and how much we want. We don’t need some socialist like the Obamas limiting and telling us what to eat and not eat. There is always an agenda, research why Mrs. Obama is so concerned with childhood obesity. Ask yourself why she partnered with Olive Garden and partners to lower sodium content. Look who the CEOs are and there connection to the Obamas. You may get your eyes opened of their agendas. Take a look at the posters that Olive Garden has in there back room for employees only. They really aren’t concerned for the well being of our children because mommy and daddy having a job to put food on the table should be the first priority over these last 4 years. Wake up people before its too late. I don’t think you will like it when the Obamas limit your internet use because it causes laziness.

  8. Bettina Elias Siegel says

    To the other Sally who attempted to comment here (not the same person as the “Sally” above, I believe): I deliberated for quite some time before deciding that the comment you attempted to post, which was directed at another commenter here, crossed the line into ad hominem attack. If you want to tone it down and resubmit, feel free. As a measure of acceptability, please ask yourself, if the shoe were on the other foot, would you want to be addressed in that tone and manner? Thanks.

    • says

      I don’t like the government telling me how to run my life, either. OTOH, Michelle Obama is NOT the government, nor is she making regulations/laws. She is engaged in what might be termed “reverse lobbying” – instead of lobbying the government on behalf of business, she is lobbying businesses… and trying to show that there is another (and, many would argue, a better) way.

      Just like the rest of us, the First Lady has a right to speak her mind. And, being in the position she is in, she has a very public bully pulpit from which to speak.


      • Talon says

        If she is not the GOVERNMENT, then why was her stupid idea implemented. Hmmm. This was implemented by the GOVERNMENT and not private business.

        • says

          Most likely because her idea resonated with someone in a position to implement it. Why does the government implement a lot of the stuff they do? Because of lobbying efforts on behalf of (and by) various individuals and organizations. And, while you may consider her idea “stupid”, there are many folks who do not.


  9. Talon says

    Author: bw1
    “If the government, which does not ask for anyone’s voluntary buy-in, is feeding kids, whose idea of healthy should they follow?
    In your comment, you cite at least three points which are not settled, and on which medical consensus has reversed itself at least twice that I can remember, and with which most of the “regulars” disagree.”

    Once you take TAX dollars from the Feds, YOU have to do what they say, or YOU lose your funding. It’s legal extortion.

    • bw1 says

      Exactly, except you missed something – before you can ACCEPT tax dollars from the Feds, they must first TAKE those tax dollars from you, by force.

      When it comes to feeding your kids, an old saying applies.
      If you want to be sure something is done right, do it yourself.


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