by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Obama

Feb 6 2012

Happy 2nd Birthday Let’s Move!

On the occasion of the two-year anniversary of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign, it’s time to reflect again on what the campaign means for the White House, for childhood obesity, and for the food movement.

A year later, I summarized some of the campaign’s accomplishments.  From the beginning, I’ve been impressed with its smart choice of targets: to reduce childhood obesity by improving school food and inner city access to healthy foods.

I’m reminded of the political savvy that went into the campaign by an editorial in The Nation (February 6), “America’s First Lady Blues.”  In it, Ilyse Hogue writes about Michelle Obama’s careful treading of the fine line between marital independence and submission, using Let’s Move! as an example.

Hogue praises Mrs. Obama’s choice of a target that looks “soft,” but is anything but:

In an effort to fit Michelle’s role into a traditional profile, the media constantly reminds us that her work is on presumably soft subjects, primarily her hallmark cause to end childhood obesity…Slurs aside, what critics miss is that this campaign is not aimed at soft targets.

The food and beverage industry is a powerful lobbying force, spending nearly $16.3 million in the 2008 cycle to defeat initiatives—like a “soda tax” and limits on aggressive advertising aimed at kids—that would encourage a healthier diet and thus cut into its massive profits.

To tackle childhood obesity, we’ll have to confront complicated issues of race, class, entrenched corporate power, and access to healthy food.

Indeed we will.  Childhood obesity is a focal point for issues of social justice.

Happy birthday Let’s Move!  And many more.

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.”

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.

Dec 5 2011

Let’s Move Campaign gives up on healthy diets for kids?

In what Obama Foodorama calls “a fundamental shift in the Let’s Move campaign” Michelle Obama announced in a speech last week that she will now focus on getting kids to be more active.

Apparently, she has given up on encouraging food companies to make healthier products and stop marketing junk foods to kids.

This shift is troubling.  Here’s why:

1.  The shift is based on faulty biology.

To lose weight, most people have to eat less whether or not they move more.   For example, it takes about three miles of walking to compensate for the calories in one 20-ounce soda.

Activity is important for health, but to lose or maintain weight, kids also need to eat less.  Sometimes they need to eat much less.  And discouraging them from drinking sugary sodas is a good first step in controlling body weight.

But eating and drinking less are very bad for business.  Food companies do all they can to oppose this advice.

2.  It undercuts healthy eating messages.

On the one hand, Mrs. Obama says that she disagrees with this assumption: “kids don’t like healthy food, so why should we bother trying to feed it to them.”

But her speech implies that kids won’t eat healthfully unless forced to:

I want to emphasize that last point — the importance of really promoting physical activity to our kids…This isn’t forcing them to eat their vegetables. (Laughter.) It’s getting them to go out there and have fun.

3.  It declares victory, prematurely.

Mrs. Obama says:

Major food manufacturers are cutting sugar, salt and fat from their products. Restaurants are revamping kids’ menus and loading them with healthier, fresher options. Companies like Walgreens, SuperValu, Walmart, Calhoun’s Grocery are committing to build new stores and to sell fresh food in underserved communities all across this country.

Congress passed historic legislation to provide more nutritious school meals to millions of American children. Our schools are growing gardens all over the place. Cities and towns are opening farmers markets. Congregations are holding summer nutrition programs for their kids. Parents are reading those food labels, and they’re rethinking the meals and the snacks that they serve their kids.

So while we still have a long way to go, we have seen so much good progress. We’ve begun to have an impact on how, and what, our kids are eating every single day.  And that is so important. It’s so important.

Really?  I’d say we’ve seen promises from food companies but remarkably little action.

Mrs. Obama’s speech fails to mention what I’m guessing is the real reason for the shift: “Move more” is not politically loaded.  “Eat less” is.

Everyone loves to promote physical activity.  Trying to get the food industry to budge on product formulations and marketing to kids is an uphill battle that confronts intense, highly paid lobbying.

You don’t believe this?  Consider recent examples of food industry opposition to anti-obesity efforts:

  • Soda companies successfully defeated efforts to impose taxes on soft drinks.
  • Food companies successfully defeated efforts by four federal agencies to set voluntary standards for marketing foods to children.
  • Food companies successfully lobbied Congress to pass a law forbidding the USDA from setting standards for school meals regarding potatoes, tomato sauce, and whole grains.  The result?  Pizza tomato sauce now counts as a vegetable serving.
  • McDonald’s and  Burger King evaded San Francisco’s new rules restricting toys with kids meals by selling the toys separately for ten cents each.

The political cost of fighting the food industry is surely the reason for the change in Mrs. Obama’s rhetoric.  Now, she agrees that kids won’t eat vegetables unless forced to.

But in March 2010 Mrs. Obama warned Grocery Manufacturers Association:

We need you…to entirely rethink the products that you’re offering…, the information that you provide about these products, and how you market those products to our children….This isn’t about finding creative ways to market products as healthy.

The food industry understood those as fighting words.  It fought back with weapons at its disposal, one of which is to deflect attention from food by focusing on physical activity.   It now has White House endorsement of this deflection.

I’m all for promoting physical activity but the refocusing is a loss, not a win, in the fight against childhood obesity.

Sep 16 2011

Michele Obama gets Darden’s to promise healthier meals

Yesterday, Michele Obama announced  that as part of her Let’s Move! initiative Darden’s, the restaurant chain that owns Olive Garden, Red Lobster, LongHorn Steakhouse, The Capital Grille, Bahama Breeze, and Seasons 52, would be making its meals a bit healthier.

As I explain below, I have a personal interest in this announcement.

According to the White House press release, the Darden’s commitment includes:

Kids’ Menus – changes starting now and to be fully implemented by July 2012.  Darden’s will:

  • Add a fruit or vegetable as the default side for every kids’ menu item at those restaurants offering a default side on the children’s menu: Bahama Breeze, LongHorn Steakhouse and Red Lobster.
  • Make 1% milk the default beverage.
  • Make milk prominently promoted on the menu and available with free refills.
  • Illustrate healthy choices for meals and drinks on menus.
  • Display healthier menu options more prominently, when possible.
  • Not display carbonated beverages on children’s menus.
  • Improve the nutritional content of one or more children’s menu items to provide equal or less than 600 calories, 30% of total calories from fat, 10% of total calories from saturated fat, and 600 mg of sodium.

Calories/Sodium Footprint Reduction – changes to be implemented by 2016 and 2021

  • By 2016, reduce calories by 10% and over a ten-year period by 20%.
  • By 2016, reduce sodium by 10% and over a ten-year period by 20%.

My personal interest: In 2005, I was invited to Amelia Island, Florida, to give a talk to the CEO’s of popular restaurant chains, among them Clarence Otis, Jr., the CEO of Darden’s.  I was specifically asked to discuss what restaurant chains could do to lessen the impact of childhood obesity.

In my talk, I told the group that they could help alleviate childhood obesity by:

  • Making healthy kids’ meals the default.  Parents could still order junk food, but the default meal should be healthy.
  • Providing a price incentive for choosing smaller portions.
  • Stopping any funding of the Center for Consumer Freedom and hiding behind its tactics.

The reaction?  The CEOs went ballistic: “you are trying to put us out of business!”

No, I simply hoped they would consider making it easier for customers to make healthier choices.

Seven years later, Mrs. Obama has put these chains on notice that they are part of the problem of childhood obesity and must change their practices.  Darden’s has admitted that it bears some responsibility for contributing to childhood obesity and is making some grudging changes.  Others are likely to follow.

It’s a step.  Now let’s make sure they follow through.   

For more details, see the AP story.   For many more details, see what Obamafoodorama has to say (I’m quoted).

Jun 15 2011

U.S. food politics in action

For an instant tutorial in U.S. food politics, take a look at this Washington Post map of where agricultural subsidies go.

Presidents have been trying to get rid of subsidies for decades, but they also want to be reelected.  Will Obama succeed where others have failed?  We shall soon see.

Feb 22 2011

Why the White House is soft on Walmart: afterthoughts

Not everyone liked Sam Kass’s speech as much as I did (see previous post) and I’ve been asked to expand on the idea that we need to pressure the White House to do more.  Here’s how I see the situation.

We live in an era when corporations run government.  You don’t believe this?  Take a look at the appalling events in Wisconsin.  Consider the implications of last year’s Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, allowing corporations virtually unlimited funding of congressional election campaigns.

Election campaign funding is the root source of corruption in American government.   If corporations were not allowed to fund election campaigns, we might be able to elect legislators who are more interested in public health than corporate health.

The First Lady’s Let’s Move campaign aims to reduce childhood obesity.  This, in itself, is fundamentally anti-corporate.  Why?  Because fixing obesity means eating less and eating better, and both are very, very bad for business.  And they are especially bad for the corporations that make highly profitable junk foods—snacks, sodas, and the like—and for retailers who display these products on supermarket shelves.

From the perspective of the White House, the food business is not going away.  If the Obama administration is not going to be perceived as anti-business, it has to work with corporations.  But what can food corporations really do to help kids eat more healthfully?

I worried about this question when I returned from the World Economic Forum in Davos a few years ago.  There, I met high-level executives of food corporations and realized that I needed a clear, unambiguous agenda for them.  But because I think people would be healthier if they ate mostly unprocessed foods, and I’m not much impressed by small nutritional tweakings of junk foods, I had a hard time thinking of positive things they could do.

The only agenda items I could think of were negatives: stop marketing junk food, stop marketing to kids,  stop marketing junk food as health food, stop attacking critics, etc.  Negatives won’t sell.

I think Mrs. Obama’s choice of childhood obesity as her First Lady’s Cause was a courageous decision.   In the current corporate context, the accomplishments listed by Mr. Kass add up to something meaningful.  The First Lady is doing what she can.  And let’s face it: nobody else in that position ever has.  Never have issues of food and nutrition been made so legitimate.  For that alone, she deserves thanks.

If the Obamas think they have to work with business, they have to work with Walmart—it’s the 800-pound food gorilla.  In theory, if Walmart tweaks food products, reduces the price of healthier food options, sources lower cost fruits and vegetables, and moves stores into inner cities, the net result will be healthier choices for Walmart customers.  In practice, we have to wait and see.

The White House must think these potential gains are worth the cost of the nose-holding they have to do about Walmart’s labor and business practices.  Nose-holding is the price of getting things done at that level.

I am in the privileged position of not having to make those kinds of compromises (thank you, NYU).

It is not an accident that Mr. Kass’s riff began with “parents told us.”  The First Lady cannot budge without substantial popular support and pressure.  If we think she is in a position to do any good at all for the movement to reverse childhood obesity and improve the food system, we have to let her know what we’d like her to try to do—loudly and repeatedly.

So maybe the First Lady’s—and Sam Kass’s—next speech will begin: “Everyone who cares about how our food is produced and consumed told us….”

Maybe I’m overly optimistic (it’s my nature), but I still see Mrs. Obama’s efforts as an opportunity.  We ought to be using it to push for what we think is right.

Feb 21 2011

Sam Kass’s speech to the International Association of Culinary Professionals

Sam Kass, White House chef and Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives gave the keynote address to members of the The International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) at its New York City Regional Conference on Friday.

The IACP is much more than an organization of cooks.  Every member I talked to is engaged in some incredible farming, gardening, school, or other kids’ project, each more exciting than the next.

Kass spoke to an audience of people who care deeply about food, cooking, health, and kids, and eager to hear what he had to say.  Me too.

The core of his speech was a review of the accomplishments of the First Lady’s Let’s Move campaign, which has just completed its first year.   These, in sum, are considerable:

Over this past year, we’ve seen the first signs of a fundamental shift in how we live and eat.

We’ve seen changes at every level of our society—from classrooms to boardrooms to the halls of Congress.

We have begun to see this change because people from all over the country, parents and teachers, doctors and small business owners, have started demanding change.

…Parents asked for more fresh, nutritious food in communities.  So we’re working to bring more grocery stores into underserved areas.

Parents wanted healthier, more affordable options on those grocery store shelves.  So we collaborated with food companies and retailers to provide healthier products….

Parents asked for more information about the food you buy for your kids.  And today, we’re seeing better, clearer labels on beverage cans….

Parents asked for better food in your kids’ schools—the kind of balanced meals they are trying to make at home.  So we’re working to put salad bars in 6,000 schools across the country.  Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, historic legislation that will provide healthier school meals to millions of American children.

Parents asked for healthier communities that can sustain healthy families.  And through Let’s Move Cities and Towns, 500 mayors have committed to tackling obesity in their communities….

Parents asked for practical, affordable, real-life advice to keep kids healthy.  So we launched a public service campaign and a website—letsmove.gov—with helpful tips on exercise and nutrition….

If we can do all this in the first year, just imagine what we’ll achieve next year and the year after that….

These kinds of changes will not come easily….There will certainly be many roadblocks and setbacks.  But we need to keep working to break through and work in a collaborative way.

Here’s the speech in its entirety. It may sound speech-written and not overwhelming, but consider the context:  This is the first time food, nutrition, and health have gotten anywhere near this kind of attention at that level of government (at least, food writer Laura Shapiro tells me, since the time of Eleanor Roosevelt).

For the First Lady to take on these issues is truly extraordinary.  Mrs. Obama has no legislated power whatsoever.   She only has the power of leadership and persuasion.

That the kind of changes she is trying to make will not come easily is a breathtaking understatement.  The roadblocks are formidable.   Mr. Kass made it abundantly clear that the White House is trying to do what it can, and then some.

His speech was moving and inspiring.  It’s up to us to cheer them on in every way we can, and also to keep the pressure on to do even more.

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!