by Marion Nestle
Dec 7 2011

White House insists “eat better” is still part of Let’s Move

I got a call yesterday from Sam Kass, the senior policy adviser on Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move staff, objecting strongly (an understatement) to my post about her new physical activity initiatives.

I interpreted her speech as a pullback from healthy eating initiatives.  “Eating better” is demonstrably bad for business.  The food industry much prefers “move more.”

Mr. Kass says no pullback was intended.  Instead, he said, this is an expansion of Let’s Move into another one of the program’s five essential “pillars.”


I did not recall anything about pillars.  I went to the Let’s Move website. Sure enough, there they are:

At the launch of the initiative, President Barack Obama signed a Presidential Memorandum creating the first-ever Task Force on Childhood Obesity….[Its] recommendations focus on the five pillars of the First Lady’s Let’s Move! initiative.

  1. Creating a healthy start for children
  2. Empowering parents and caregivers
  3. Providing healthy food in schools
  4. Improving access to healthy, affordable foods
  5. Increasing physical activity

In February 2010, Mrs. Obama discussed these elements in her speech launching Let’s Move, although without using the word “pillars.”  The word also did not pop up in her speech discussing the new activity initiatives.

When I need help with this sort of thing, I consult Obama Foodorama,  a treasure trove of information about food at the White House.  Here’s what Let’s Move has done and is doing about the pillars:

  1. Creating a healthy start for children: encouraging breastfeeding, Let’s Move Child Care, and other such programs
  2. Empowering parents and caregivers: MyPlate and MiPlato, front-of-package labeling
  3. Providing healthy food in schools: child nutrition legislation, Healthier US Challenge , salad bars in schools
  4. Improving access to healthy, affordable foods: combating food deserts, reducing the price of fruits and vegetables, encouraging gardening, and green markets
  5. Increasing physical activity: Presidential Active Lifestyle Award challenge (PALA) and the new initiatives

In the broader context of the Let’s Move pillars, a focus on physical activity makes sense.  It is an addition, not a substitution.

But Mrs. Obama’s speech did not frame it like that.  Instead, her speech implied that she had given up on healthy eating because it is too difficult (kids have to be forced to eat vegetables), leaving open the possibility that “eating better” is too hard to promote in an election year.

I wish her speech had placed the initiative in context.   Had it done so, it would not have been open to this kind of interpretation.

  • Anthro

    The pillars seem vague, or perhaps just overly broad. Advertising and marketing are not mentioned in any way. Even so, I am somewhat relieved for the clarification and I do applaud Mrs. Obama for even attempting to address something as challenging as childhood obesity. Even on this blog, there is robust pushback–mostly consisting of rather crude snark, but nevertheless came as a shock to me. I wasn’t aware that anyone would be against improving the diets of children.

    On balance, Mrs. Obama is brave to take this on. She could have stuck with literacy or military families. She has my continued support and I will continue to volunteer at the local urban garden that serves food desert areas in my city.

  • Benboom

    Keep it up, Marion. It looks like little pitchers really do have big ears; they’re listening.

  • super student

    We are organizing a phone/fax campaign in support of Prof. Nestle. Please express your outrage to the Deans at NYU over the White House chef’s attack on their magnificent tenured NYU professor. For a mere chef to upbraid a NYU academic is intolerable. We are insisting the Deans impose upon the NYU Board of Trustees to demand an apology from the White House and a personal assurance to NYU that henceforth Barack and Michelle will keep thier kitchen staff in line. Here are the contact numbers. Please melt the fax lines with your support!!

    Office of the Dean of Administration

    5 Washington Square North, 3rd Floor
    Phone: (212) 998-8174
    Fax: (212) 995-4208

    Joseph Juliano
    Dean of Administration
    Ext. 88015

    Office of the Dean for Science

    6 Washington Square North, 3rd Floor
    Phone: (212) 998-3800
    Fax: (212) 995-4181

    Daniel Stein
    Dean for Science
    Ext. 83800

    We cannot take this lying down! Please act now and repeat your contact tomorrow!! Thank you!!!

  • Michael Bulger

    As an NYU graduate student and colleague of Dr. Nestle, I don’t think it is necessary to waste faculty time with such a campaign.

    I would not discourage anyone from viewing the previous post as a ruse.

  • Mrs Q

    When you blog, they listen. I think it was something a lot of people were thinking, but they didn’t say it. Kudos to you (as usual)!

  • Let’s face it, the Obama administration has lost valuable ground in its admirable attempts to push back Big Food (FTC wimp-out, Pizza As Veggie, French Fries as Entree, Buy Soda and KFC with SNAP). And the Partnership for a Healthy America had to really scrape the barrel to find ANY “commitments of significance” from industry last week. Did we see General Mills or Coke making any “transformative” announcments? No! We saw a six-year old spitting out the broccolli and McDonald’s doing a cynical end-run around San Francisco’s attempts to clean up the obesigenic environment.

    When Madame Obama has to resort to jumping jacks, we know she and her people are losing! Stick to your guns Marion, don’t let the WH browbeat you! “Pillars” indeed!

  • Suzanne

    @Marion Nestle, Please delete the troll’s comments. They are distracting from your message.

    @super student, @Tilly Tightass, @medico, are all incarnations of our resident troll, Doc_Mudd. The writing style is all too familiar.

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  • skchgo

    I applaud any First Lady for taking on such a task such as childhood obesity but at the end of the day, the first lady can say and do as much as she likes but it is up to the parents to teach their kids about healthy eating and exercise that’s the most important tool to use.

    Then secondary should be government/public sector such as legislation on using proper labeling such as GMOs, changing the school lunch programs to eliminating all junk foods (yes I’m talking about pizza and french fries) and change how foods are marketed to children. I’ve seen many of these issues challenged by Obama Administration but push back has been far more powerful and unfortunately the message from the First Lady as well as Obama Admin has not been addressed since Congress now thinks pizza is a vegetable.

    Another very important issue of our governments need to crackdown and completely reform is, the USDA and FDA. If there was anything so corrupt it is those two agencies. I just would like to see a white house more aggressive because after three years of failed compromise – thats the last word I want to hear.

  • Jill

    Just wanted to express my support about both of your articles. Thank you for your courageous posts (it takes courage to speak freely nowadays…) (And I bet you get another phone call over this one…)

  • Henry Aronson

    First 4 of 5 “pillars” are food specific, with 5th, increasing physical activity, a vague also rant toss off.

    Description of shift in current emphasis appears to be more of a U turn than pullback.

    The good news is you got their attention. Don’t let up.

  • Jon

    “Instead, her speech implied that she had given up on healthy eating because it is too difficult (kids have to be forced to eat vegetables), leaving open the possibility that “eating better” is too hard to promote in an election year.”

    I don’t think that acknowledging a difficulty is the same thing as succumbing or relenting to it.

    In fact, acknowledging a hurdle is the first and most important step to reaching your goal.

    I think you are reading into that sentence too much.

  • Thank you for calling it as you see it. I’m grateful the First Lady has taken on this issue and is doing what she can, but your clear eyes are necessary for keeping the food movement on track. Don’t let up!

  • I’ll echo the compliments here Marion. Nice work. At least you stay on message.

    Further, it’s fascinating that you got a call from a flack at the White House. Sounds to me they doth protest too much, and that call is proof that you’re onto something. And hey, it IS an election year.

    Dan @ Casual Kitchen

  • Hi Marion:

    I wrote a post on The Lunch Tray that predated yours by a few days entitled “Is Mrs. Obama Afraid to Discuss the Real Causes of Childhood Obesity?” (

    I have long admired and applauded Mrs. Obama for taking on the cause of childhood obesity, a cause for which she’s taken her share of right wing “Nanny state” flak. But “pillars” or no, there’s a reason why Mrs. O’s public messaging about this childhood obesity has taken a decided shift, and the looming presidential election is no doubt part of the calculation.

    – Bettina at The Lunch Tray

  • Margeretrc

    I wonder why Mrs. Obama doesn’t consult Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatrician and one of the leading experts in childhood obesity. Then maybe her approach would actually be based on science and what works.

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  • Elize

    If you saw the reply that the NYSED folks have given to the request for schools that want to make their own gardens, ( the tone indicates that gardening has not really made it down the chain of command as something real. As a grantwriter, I am frustrated at how little funding was made available for real change on food related initiatives, when so much could have been done. The garden initiative they put out through the feds was only a show piece – it was not the transformative piece of funding that would have jump started community gardening at the local level and helped to shape a new community movement that is needed so badly in low income communities. We have at my organization raised the funding to start something but it would have taken so little money – literally – for the White House to have had a real and sustained impact.