When Michelle Obama Says “˜Let’s Move’ “¦

FILE - In this June 3, 2011, file photo, first lady Michelle Obama tends the White House garden in Washington, with a group of children as part of the "Let's Move!" campaign. Michelle Obama has a new look, both in person and online, and with the president's re-election, she has four more years as first lady, too. The first lady is trying to figure out what comes next for this self-described "mom in chief" who also is a champion of healthier eating, an advocate for military families, a fitness buff and the best-selling author of a book about her White House garden. For certain, she'll press ahead with her well-publicized efforts to reduce childhood obesity and rally the country around its service members.
National Journal
Rebecca Kaplan
Add to Briefcase
Rebecca Kaplan
Sept. 18, 2013, 4:30 p.m.

When Kev­in Con­can­non, the Ag­ri­cul­ture De­part­ment’s un­der­sec­ret­ary for food, nu­tri­tion, and con­sumer ser­vices, travels for work, he con­sist­ently hears one re­quest: Can you get Michelle Obama to come to our school?

“She’s clearly iden­ti­fied as a cham­pi­on,” Con­can­non said, “and that helps us.”

Obama has made the fight against child­hood obesity one of her sig­na­ture policy pri­or­it­ies, and she has pro­moted bet­ter nu­tri­tion and phys­ic­al activ­ity for chil­dren through the “Let’s Move” pro­gram. The pub­lic health com­munity has cred­ited her with put­ting sus­tained fo­cus on the is­sue.

“Hav­ing this be a pri­or­ity of the first lady really strengthens all of us that work in nu­tri­tion policy and nu­tri­tion ad­vocacy,” said Lore­lei DiSo­gra, the vice pres­id­ent of nu­tri­tion and health for the United Fresh Pro­duce As­so­ci­ation, which rep­res­ents fruit and ve­get­able grow­ers. “Every­body is pulling in the same dir­ec­tion to make these changes that those of us in pub­lic health have been try­ing to make for many, many years.”

Much of Obama’s work on the is­sue has been through dir­ect pub­lic out­reach, such as me­dia ap­pear­ances and events. She rarely works dir­ectly with Con­gress, though she was act­ively in­volved in lob­by­ing for pas­sage of the 2010 Healthy Hun­ger-Free Kids Act and ap­peared with her hus­band at its sign­ing. That bill re­quires that schools re­ceiv­ing fed­er­al re­im­burse­ment serve health­i­er meals and also provides them a 6-cent in­crease per meal if they meet the new stand­ards.

“The first lady’s of­fice helped enorm­ously in get­ting it over the goal line,” Con­can­non said. Without her ef­forts, he said, “I don’t be­lieve that it would have made it.”

Last month, sev­er­al news out­lets re­por­ted that schools were drop­ping out of the Na­tion­al School Lunch Pro­gram be­cause the new food they were serving in com­pli­ance with USDA guidelines — lim­it­ing total cal­or­ies and salt, and in­creas­ing the use of whole grains and fresh fruits and ve­get­ables — was be­ing thrown out by stu­dents.

Con­can­non called the re­ports over­blown, and ad­ded that USDA sur­veys show the num­ber of schools that have dropped out of the pro­gram be­cause of the meal re­quire­ments rep­res­en­ted less than one-quarter of 1 per­cent of the total.

It’s not the first in­stance of cri­ti­cism. When USDA re­leased its guidelines in 2011 and at­temp­ted to curb the pres­ence of some foods like white pota­toes, there was back­lash from both the in­dustry and law­makers.

“We thought that pota­toes were be­ing un­fairly char­ac­ter­ized as a non­nu­tri­tious source,” said Mark Szy­manski, a spokes­man for the Na­tion­al Potato Coun­cil. “In the fi­nal reg­u­la­tions, we got back to a more com­mon­sense ap­proach,” he ad­ded, re­fer­ring to a move by the Sen­ate to block the Ag­ri­cul­ture De­part­ment from lim­it­ing ve­get­able servings.

“I took that as an in­dic­a­tion that we were really ac­com­plish­ing something,” said Sam Kass, the as­sist­ant White House chef and ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of Let’s Move. “I think the push­back was re­l­at­ively min­im­al com­pared to the size of the change that we were un­der­tak­ing.”

USDA also is­sued guidelines on vend­ing-ma­chine snacks and cafet­er­ia a la carte lines, which will be im­ple­men­ted dur­ing the next aca­dem­ic year. But the next food-driv­en battle will likely take place this fall over fund­ing for the food-stamps pro­gram, which was sep­ar­ated from the rest of the farm bill this year in the House. Michelle Obama has not in­dic­ated she will lobby Con­gress, but pres­sure could come from her hus­band.

The Sen­ate and the House handle child-nu­tri­tion pro­grams dif­fer­ently. The Sen­ate Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee handles both school meals and the Spe­cial Sup­ple­ment­al Nu­tri­tion Pro­gram for Wo­men, In­fants, and Chil­dren, or WIC, but in the House, child nu­tri­tion goes through the Edu­ca­tion and the Work­force Com­mit­tee.

The House Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee has jur­is­dic­tion over food stamps and com­mod­ity-dis­tri­bu­tion pro­grams. There is a de­bate in the coun­try over wheth­er food stamps — of­fi­cially the Sup­ple­ment­al Nu­tri­tion As­sist­ance Pro­gram, or SNAP — should be changed so that be­ne­fi­ciar­ies can­not buy foods such as potato chips and soda that nu­tri­tion­ists deem un­healthy, and wheth­er com­mod­ity-dis­tri­bu­tion pro­grams that sup­ply food banks and in­sti­tu­tions should em­phas­ize healthy foods rather than ful­filling their tra­di­tion­al job of re­mov­ing sur­plus foods from the mar­ket to sta­bil­ize prices of meats and ve­get­ables. Obama, who sticks to pos­it­ive mes­sages about what people should eat, and the House Ag­ri­cul­ture pan­el, which re­sponds to ag­ri­cul­ture and an­ti­hun­ger groups that do not want the gov­ern­ment to tell poor people what to eat, have both stayed out of those de­bates.

Kass said cuts pro­posed by Re­pub­lic­ans are un­pal­at­able to the White House. “I think what they put out is un­con­scion­able and goes against the val­ues that we hold,” he said. “That is not go­ing to be part of any bill that gets to the pres­id­ent’s desk.”

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