White House Unveils Huge Solutions for America's Weighty Problem

Tuesday's announcement revealed an astonishing array of resources being marshaled to end childhood obesity…and this time, eventually, the effort just might work.

February 9, 2010

President Obama signs an order creating the Task Force on Childhood Obesity. Official White House Photo By Samantha Appleton

RODALE NEWS, WASHINGTON, DC—In the gilded and cream State Dining Room of the White House, packed with guests seated in gold ballroom chairs and reporters pressed together in their slush- and salt-stained shoes, First Lady Michelle Obama kicked off her "Let's Move" campaign, an historic initiative that aims to do nothing less than eliminate childhood obesity in a generation. A daunting task, to say the least.


In a private conversation just before the program was announced, Sam Kass, White House Food Initiative coordinator, and one of the key players in the Let’s Move campaign, which was a year in the making, said, “This is huge.” And he is right.

Getting children to eat right and exercise more has been the stated goal of children's advocates, obesity specialists, pediatricians, sometimes even the federal government, not to mention parents, for at least two decades. All have failed. And today almost one-third of American children are either overweight or obese.

But this time maybe be different. Never before has the power of the White House been behind such a sweeping plan. Every sector of society is being engaged, including government leaders, educators, science and medical professionals, sports figures, mayors, businesses.

Yet Mrs. Obama is realistic about how difficult this reordering of society will be. “We know we won’t get there this year, or during this administration,” she said. “We know it’ll take a nationwide movement that continues long after we’re gone.”

Read on for details about the Let's Move campaign, and suggestions for helping your family stay at a healthy weight.

THE DETAILS: The first lady began her quest to improve children’s eating habits almost a year ago, when she planted the White House garden. Along the way, she hinted that she would assume an important policy role. Tuesday was the debut of that role. It began Tuesday morning in the Oval Office, with the first lady watching as the president signed an executive order creating the first Task Force on Childhood Obesity. The task force will bring together a review of all government policies related to children's nutrition and their physical exercise.

In a sign of the power the White House wields, Mrs. Obama announced that three major suppliers of school meals have pledged to reduce the amount of sugar, fat, and salt in their meals, while beverage makers have promised front-of-package labeling that will quickly tell consumers how many calories are in a serving, to appear their bottles and cans within two years.

There are a number of other programs connected to the Let's Move campaign:

• The American Academy of Pediatrics will advise its membership to monitor children's body mass index (BMI) to measure body fat.

• By the end of the year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will begin working with food retailers and manufacturers on easy-to-understand, front-of-package labeling.

• There will be a major public information campaign through public service announcements (PSAs), some of which will feature the first lady.

• The new LetsMove.gov website will provide a central location for information about childhood obesity, with helpful tips and strategies for children and families.

• The administration has already requested an additional $10 billion over 10 years for school lunch and breakfast, though many school-lunch advocates say that's a drop in the bucket.

• The president has proposed $400 million in a Healthy Food Financing Initiative, to bring grocery stores to underserved areas and healthier food options to convenience stores. The budget also provides money to increase the number of farmer's markets in the U.S.

• The seemingly moribund President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports is being reenergized.

• Several foundations have joined forces to support the Partnership for a Healthier America to work with the private, nonprofit, and public sectors. The goal is to help solve the childhood-obesity problem within a single generation.

Read on for three key household habits that can help kids stay healthy.

WHAT IT MEANS: It's unlikely that such an ambitious goal as ending childhood obesity could be achieved without an equally huge effort. But Mrs. Obama’s campaign comes with certain risks. Some people may call her the Food Police. If parents want to let their kids eat anything, and sit all day in front of the television set, some would declare that it’s none of the first lady’s business. The first lady addressed this by saying that "none of the solutions are about government telling people what to do."

To such naysayers—and perhaps to the food industry as well, if it continues to give lip service to healthier foods while marketing junk food to children—Mrs. Obama had these pointed words: "It’s time for us to be honest with ourselves about how we got here. The truth is our kids didn’t do this to themselves. Our kids didn’t choose to make food products with tons of fat and sugar and super-sized portions, and then to have those marketed to them wherever they turn."

See Letsmove.gov for more details on the program, and how it intends to help families lose weight. And here are three steps you can take right now:

•  Eat dinner as a family. A study to be published in the March issue of the journal Pediatrics shows that obesity was more likely among preschoolers in families who didn't eat their evening meals together at least five times a week. If finding time to cook is an issue for you, check the Rodale Recipe Finder, which helps you zero in on healthy meals with quick prep and cooking times.

•  Institute a firm bedtime. The study, which sampled over 8,000 families, also found risk of childhood obesity to be higher for kids who didn't get adequate sleep. For cranky young children, try a lullaby and massage combo.

•  Turn off the TV. In the study, more than two hours of screen time (TV, videos, DVDs) also raised obesity risk for the kids. Kids who didn't experience any of these three risk factors had the lowest likelihood of being obese. Keep in mind that children in day care may be getting more TV time than you realize. And consider rethinking your own relationship to TV.

Follow journalist, cookbook author, and former New York Times food writer and columnist Marian Burros as she covers Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign—and what it means for your family—every week on Rodale.com.