by Marion Nestle
Feb 8 2011

Happy birthday Let’s Move!

Mrs. Obama’s Let’s Move campaign is one year old and people are asking me whether it has accomplished anything.  I think it has.

  • It has brought childhood obesity to public attention, as never before.
  • The choice of action areas—fixing school food and getting supermarkets into inner city food deserts—makes excellent sense.  Both are doable and both can make a real difference to kids and their families.
  • Encouraging the makers of packaged foods to reduce salt and sugar and to stop blatant marketing to kids brings attention to their worst practices.
  • And now, according to the New York Times, Mrs. Obama is talking to restaurant companies about serving healthier foods, especially to kids.

This last one warms my heart.  Six or seven years ago, I was invited to speak to a small group of owners of restaurant chains, Applebee’s, Darden’s, and the like.  I went with a three-point agenda:

  • Make healthy kids’ meals the default.
  • Give a price break to encourage people to order smaller portions (charge 70% for a 50% portion, for example).
  • And stop funding the Center for Consumer Freedom (an aggressive PR firm that does the dirty work for restaurant and other industries).

The response?  Ballistic. “What are you trying to do, put us out of business?”

Well, times have changed.  Some of those chains are actually doing some of these things.  And now the First Lady is urging them to do the first two points on my agenda, at least.

Mrs. Obama has no legislated power.  She only has the power of leadership and persuasion.  I’m glad she’s using it to promote action on childhood obesity, challenging as that is.

Happy birthday!

  • Marion,

    I’m glad that you are optimistic. I am not.

    While Mrs. Obama has been doing that, on “my Main Street” (which is everyone’s Main Street) junk food stores have been popping up like weeds. My “favorite”: a cup cake store. And of course, when I walk into my pharmacy (we have 3 CVS stores within 1 mile of each other), I am not sure if I entered a candy store or a drug store.

    So, I wish Mrs. Obama well in her mission, however, the force is against her.

    Ken Leebow

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  • KB

    I would love it if more restaurants would offer 1/2 portions. As a busy working mom, we rely on restaurant food more often than I would like. As it is now, getting a dinner with a reasonable number of calories requires some fancy ordering (e.g. no cheese or mayo on that sandwich; 1/2 the rice, more beans, a dollop of guacamole instead of a 1/2 cup, etc.). I would happily pay more money per calorie to get a quick, healthier meal.

  • Anthro

    I think she’s doing what she can and it may start a trend, but unless regulation is to follow, I don’t see much of it sticking in the long haul.

    About a year ago I noticed that Starbucks had posted the calories of a modestly sized chocolate chip cookie (360!)–I passed on something I had been in the habit of indulging in at times. The next time I was there, the little sign was gone. Apparently, I was not the only one who passed.

    However, Starbucks now offers a mini-doughnut and “baby” scones, although they do not say how many calories they contain. One hopes it can’t be that many as these treats are so small. However, the scones sell for a “3 for $__” price, so most people probably eat three of them. The clerk is always surprised when I order only one doughnut as well.

    While I think they are trying to find strategies that offer an alternative to high calorie treats, the fact remains that these strategies dance around the real issue–and that is the danger of the First Lady’s efforts to “work with” industry rather than support tough, science-based, public health-centered legislation.

    At least she doesn’t recommend “just say no”.

  • Shabazz

    I think this campaign is just as symbolic as the previous administration’s version. Mrs. Nestle, I saw you in a great interview back in the 90’s with P. Jennings talking about agribusiness’s influence on nutrition. If this hasn’t diminished since then, I’m not sure how this campaign can be considered helpful. If GM Seeds, cloned meat and poisonous substitutes for sugar aren’t being properly addressed, can we realistically expect substantial improvements in childhood obesity and overall health?

  • Subvert

    Happy Birthday Media Spectacle!

  • Pete

    Happy Birthday slogan that detract from the real issue and appeases the food industry. Like a one hit wonder I think the Obama’s put all their eggs into “Hope we can believe in” and never another slogan shall they see succeed. In this juvenile society did you really think you could put out a slogan with the initials WTF and get away with it? Time for some new PR folks.

    Anyway… the mere fact that this is a First Lady issue detracts from it’s perceived importance. How about REAL legislators working on the issue, you know people that can actually make decisions and not just talk. Define how Mrs. Obama will “encourage” restaurants to offer discounts for smaller portions? If that’s not in the form of a tax break or other benefit to the bottom line I don’t see it going anywhere.

    I am all for shinning a light on the issue, but it has to be a big bright flood light, not a narrow beam flashlight that must be careful not to illuminate the “wrong” culprits. IMO, Mrs. Obama playing politics and neglecting to address the whole issue lends credence to the arguments that she will not address. “Well if Mrs. Obama is not talking about it, and she’s all about the war on obesity, it must not be that important.”

    (wow… can you tell I work in PR/marketing…lol)

  • Cathy Richards

    Forget 1/2 portions at restaurants. Just do proper portions (60-70%??), and the extra hungry can order a salad to start and maybe an extra appy.

    Restaurants would make more money doing this, because half the time I split a full meal with a friend, and they only sell one meal to 2 people. Why buy a 1/2 size for 70% of the cost, when we can split the full size at 50% of the cost??

    With proper portions they’d sell 2 meals.

    Make healthy portions the default!!!!!!!

  • Daniel

    In my humble opinion, the best speech of the campaign so far was Tammy Nguyen’s introduction of the First Lady at the Let’s Move launch!

  • Erika

    I agree with you, Prof Nestle. The garden in front of the White House alone is enough to make me happy (just imagine that with any other president!). Thanks for your post.

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