‘Let’s Move!’ to End Childhood Obesity
by Mary Branham, CSG Managing Editor
America’s first lady, Michelle Obama, has an ambitious goal—to solve the challenge of childhood obesity within a generation. Her initiative, “Let’s Move,” builds on promising approaches to provide schools, families and communities proven tools to help kids be more active, eat better and get healthy.
Why did you think reducing childhood obesity in the U.S. and improving childhood nutrition and health was an issue you needed to focus on? What do you hope your attention to this effort achieves?
“Over the past three decades, childhood obesity rates in America have tripled, and today, nearly one in three children in America are overweight or obese. One-third of all children born in 2000 or later will suffer from diabetes at some point in their lives; many others will face chronic obesity-related health problems like heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer and asthma. And a study put the health care costs of obesity-related diseases at $147 billion per year. The physical and emotional health of an entire generation and the economic health and security of our nation is at stake.
“So after extensive outreach to many of the groups and individuals that have been working on this issue for a long time, we launched the Let’s Move! campaign. We set a national goal of solving the challenge of childhood obesity within a generation. Let’s Move! builds on effective strategies that have been proven to work, mobilizes public and private sector resources and provides schools, families and communities simple tools to help kids be more active, eat better and get healthy. This isn’t the kind of problem that can be solved overnight, but with everyone working together, it can be solved.”
You have said personal experiences within your own family helped to shape your desire to create the Let’s Move! campaign. Can you share those experiences and how you think they can help other families as they try to improve the health and fitness of their children?
“It wasn’t that long ago that I was a working mom, struggling to balance meetings and deadlines with soccer and ballet. And there were some nights when everyone was tired and hungry, and we just went to the drive-thru because it was quick and cheap, or went with one of the less healthy microwave options, because it was easy. And one day, my pediatrician pulled me aside and told me, ‘You might want to think about doing things a little bit differently.’ That was a moment of truth for me. So, we made some small but significant changes at home—adding more fruits and vegetables to our meals, for instance, drinking more water, turning off the TV and going for walks after dinner. I saw the difference in my family, not only physically but in how we felt overall.”
One of the four key components of Let’s Move! is improving the quality of the food in the nation’s schools. Why is this so important?
“Thirty-one million American children participate in federal school meal programs—and many of these kids consume as many as half their daily calories at school. What we don’t want is a situation where parents are taking all the right steps at home—and then their kids undo all that work when they get to the school cafeteria. I am thrilled that the Senate recently passed the Childhood Nutrition Reauthorization Act. It is a groundbreaking piece of legislation that will help us provide healthier school meals with more fruits and vegetable and less sugar, fat and salt, and healthier options in vending machines. Let’s help parents help their kids.”
How can states assist in this goal?
“Let’s Move! is comprehensive, collaborative and community-oriented and will include strategies to address the various factors that lead to childhood obesity. It will foster collaboration among the leaders in government, medicine and science, business, education, athletics, community organizations and more. And it will take into account how life is really lived in communities across the country—encouraging, supporting and pursuing solutions that are tailored to children and families facing a wide range of challenges and life circumstances. We need to give parents the tools, support and information they need to make healthier choices for their families. We need to get more nutritious meals into our schools. We need to ensure that kids get 60 minutes of active play a day. And we need to improve access to affordable, quality, nutritious food. More than 23 million Americans, including 6.5 million children, live in low-income urban and rural neighborhoods that are more than a mile from a supermarket. In order to fully address the childhood obesity challenge, we need the support of governors, mayors and other state and local elected officials, as well as other community leaders to address each of these areas.”
Another component of Let’s Move! is increasing physical education for kids, and you have said various sports organizations will help to promote that. Many states, in trying to meet academic goals, have cut physical education. What would you like to see happen with P.E. in the nation’s schools?
“We know that in addition to a healthy diet, children should be getting 60 minutes of active play each day. Yet, the average American child spends more than 7.5 hours a day watching TV and movies, using cell phones and computers, and playing video games, and only a third of high school students get the recommended levels of physical activity.
“The U.S. Department of Education will be working with Congress on the creation of a Safe and Healthy Schools fund as part of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary School Education Act this year. This fund will support schools with comprehensive strategies to improve their school environment, including efforts to get children physically active in and outside of school, and improve the quality and availability of physical education.
“We are also working with all of the professional sports leagues including the NFL, MLB, WNBA and MLS to promote 60 Minutes of Play a Day and to provide additional opportunities for kids to get outside and play.”
As part of Let’s Move!, you have encouraged the nation’s chefs to adopt a school and work with teachers, parents and school nutrition professionals to help educate kids about food and nutrition. How is this program, administered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, working and what does the program bring to the nation’s schools?
“Our nation's chefs have tremendous power as leaders on this issue because of their deep knowledge of food. They have the ability to make foods that are nutritious and that taste good. We know that if it doesn’t taste good, kids are not going to eat it. So, a chef’s knowledge on this front is very valuable. We kicked off ‘Chefs Move to Schools’ this summer, and it has been wonderful to see chefs getting involved by taking initiative in their communities, adopting a school, and then lending their expertise in food and nutrition.”
The Obama administration this year had proposed spending $1 billion annually for the next 10 years to improve the quality of school meals and increase the number of kids participating, but that funding was cut in half by lawmakers. How can state officials work collaboratively to help their schools reach the goals of healthier school meals?
“State and local and school officials can promote healthier food in schools in so many ways. First of all, we need more schools to participate in the Healthier U.S. School Challenge and we need to encourage all schools to provide a school breakfast program. Many schools also need to upgrade the school cafeteria equipment, swapping out deep fryers for salad bars, for example. Officials can promote the expansion or improvement of nutrition education in schools and school gardens and community gardens are a great way to get kids excited about food and nutrition. Additionally, we also need to encourage participation in federal child nutrition programs to address the needs of low-income children. And, many areas can support both schools and farmers by promoting the farm to school programs, which will get more fresh produce on the menus.”
Many states have various health and wellness initiatives similar to Let’s Move!. One such effort, the Healthy Mississippi Campaign, was featured on the White House website. How can Let’s Move! work with state campaigns to improve not only the health of our children, but the nation as a whole?
“Let’s Move! was designed to work in coordination with all of the efforts going on around the country to address this challenge because there is no one-size-fits-all solution to childhood obesity. In Pennsylvania, for example, folks started a Fresh Food Financing Initiative to bring grocery stores to underserved areas. They started with $30 million, and then they leveraged that for an additional $190 million from the private and non-profit sectors. And with that money they've funded 83 supermarket projects in 34 counties that are making profits, and they're projected to create more than 5,000 jobs.
“In North Carolina, they've launched a full-scale effort to help kids eat healthier and to exercise more. They've banned snack and soda vending machines from elementary schools. They've given grants to cities and to counties for things like sidewalks and trails and community gardens. And they've trained 41,000 teachers across the state on how to incorporate physical activity into the classroom.
“Arkansas started on the issue of childhood obesity way back in 2003. They screened students’ BMIs, they got healthier food into their schools and required regular physical education classes. As a result, that state was able to halt the rise of childhood obesity completely.”
“Let’s Move! is designed to complement and promote these efforts.”
While children eat a large portion of their meals at school—during the school year—they also consume large amounts of food away from the school lunchroom. How does the Let’s Move! campaign address the challenges of getting kids to eat healthfully all the time, not just at school?
“Parents play an extremely significant role in educating kids on healthy eating and by setting good eating habits early on—habits that will carry into the future. We encourage parents to make small changes at home around the dinner table and during snack time. Small actions like adding more fruits and vegetables to meals can make a big impact for the health of the whole family. One of the things we do with our girls is that we limit television time and computer use during the week so that the girls are spending time engaged in active play.”
How does the campaign reach out to parents, who will need to be supportive partners in changing the diet of America’s children?
“Parents play a key role in making healthy choices for their children and teaching their children to make healthy choices for themselves. But in today’s busy world, this isn’t always easy. So Let’s Move! will offer parents the tools, support and information they need to make healthier choices for their families. For example, the Food and Drug Administration is working with retailers and manufacturers to adopt new nutritionally sound and consumer friendly front-of-package labeling. The private sector is already responding to this and the American Beverage Association has announced that its members will voluntarily put a clear, uniform, front-of-pack calorie label on all of their cans, bottles, vending and fountain machines within two years. The American Academy of Pediatrics, in collaboration with the broader medical community, is educating doctors and nurses across the country about obesity, ensuring they regularly monitor children’s BMI, providing counseling for healthy eating early on, and, for the first time ever, even writing a prescription for parents laying out the simple things they can do to increase healthy eating and active play. And through www.LetsMove.gov we are providing helpful tips, step-by-step strategies for parents, and regular updates on how the federal government is working with partners to reach the national goal, Let’s Move! hopes to make it easier for busy parents to make healthy decisions for their children’s health.”
Is the campaign working with state officials to promote the ideals behind healthful eating both in schools and in communities? If so, how can states become involved in these efforts?
“Through the Let’s Move Cities and Towns component of Let’s Move!, we are partnering with communities that are looking to significantly enhance the health and wellness of their communities.
“Cities and towns that participate in the program commit to taking action this year in four key areas: helping parents make healthy family choices, creating healthy schools, providing access to healthy and affordable food, and promoting physical activity. Knowing that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, we just ask that the cities and towns take the steps that make the most sense for their community—whether that means creating incentives to attract supermarkets and grocery stores to underserved neighborhoods, or creating parks systems and trails that encourage people to get out and walk.
“The federal government will work with cities and towns that sign up this year to answer any questions they may have and get feedback on what they think needs to happen here in Washington. At the end of one year, we will recognize those communities that are taking significant action by recognizing them as a high-performing Let’s Move City or a Let’s Move Town and help refer them to additional resources to further advance their initiatives.”
You have a garden at the White House. In what other ways do you and President Obama strive to set an example of healthy eating for your daughters?
“I think the biggest thing we do is simply to make fruits and vegetables a regular food item for meals and snacks. We also try to limit the amount of sweets in our diets. One of the things I tell my girls is that dessert is not a right. But, more than anything else, we try to teach our girls about balance. You don’t have to worry about having pizza and cake when you go to a birthday party. It’s just not a good idea to eat that way for every meal.”