Michelle Obama: ‘We’re Beginning to Turn the Tide on Childhood Obesity’

The first lady thanks GW for all its work to ‘forward the agenda of nutrition and fitness’ at Building Healthier Future 2013 summit.

March 11, 2013

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First Lady Michelle Obama at GW's Lisner Auditorium on Friday.

By Kurtis Hiatt

Before the White House, a trip to the grocery store required First Lady Michelle Obama to be armed with a “finely honed plan of attack” to get in and out in 30 minutes.

She had to. It was only a matter of time before one of the girls needed to be fed, diapered or put down for a nap, Mrs. Obama recalled Friday at the George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium in front of a crowd of more than 1,000.

“And heaven help me if I got all the way to the produce aisle at the end and realized that I made a rookie error and forgot the cereal or the pasta in one of the previous aisles,” she said, to laughter.

“Then I had to maneuver that big, heavy cart full of groceries and those two little kids all the way around the store. And trust me, no one was happy about that.”

The first lady’s remarks were part of a keynote address for the “Building a Healthier Future 2013” summit hosted by the Partnership for a Healthier America, a nonprofit that works to solve the nation’s childhood obesity crisis. Mrs. Obama, with help from Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker and New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning, closed out the summit, discussing the importance of combating childhood obesity—and providing some colorful anecdotes to drive home their points.

In her introduction, Mrs. Obama lauded the university for its efforts in helping people develop and maintain a healthy lifestyle.

“I also want to thank Dr. Steven Knapp,” the first lady said. “Not just for hosting us here at GW, but for all the wonderful work this university is doing to forward the agenda of nutrition and fitness. We are so grateful that they are our partners—and our neighbors as well.”

Mrs. Obama, who serves as honorary chair of the partnership, knows she’s not the only parent who has experienced that “frantic grocery store sprint,” she said.

So it’s all the more important to provide helpful information on healthy choices right where parents are making those decisions—on the products sitting on store shelves and in the menus at restaurants.

And merely designing a store so that the produce section greets customers and the healthy options are at eye level and not the bottom shelf—“If you’re bending over, you’re not gonna get it”—help Americans make better choices, Mrs. Obama said.

But what good will buying the healthy food do if kids don’t eat it? Companies must stop advertising junk food to children, and instead focus on making eating fruits and vegetables fun “and, yes, even cool,” Mrs. Obama said. And parents must encourage the healthy choices and control the products and messages children are exposed to.

The fact is that a healthy lifestyle starts with parents, Mrs. Obama said.

“We know that we can’t lie around on the couch eating french fries and candy bars and expect our kids to eat carrots and run around the block,” she said. “But too often, that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

While the realities of parenting don’t exactly make it easy to make the healthy choices—like mom or dad skipping the gym to take the kids to school, or eating fast food for lunch to have enough time to get to the store to pick up something healthy for dinner—it is incredibly important, Mrs. Obama said.

“As it turns out, one of the most important things we can do for our children’s health is to take care of our own health,” she said.

Encouraging kids to be physically active is also crucial. It’s something Mr. Manning, who is involved with BOKS, a before-school physical activity program supported by the Reebok Foundation, said is “very close to my heart.”

“To know that because of the BOKS program these kids are eager to get up an hour earlier each day and are more confident in everything that they do is just as rewarding to me as winning the Super Bowl,” he said.

Combating childhood obesity won’t happen with any one announcement or commitment, Mrs. Obama said. And it will take the work of everyone, from private corporations to the government, nonprofits and individual consumers.

“So many Americans are joining together and looking at the crisis of obesity in America, eating away the foundations of our children, consuming their potential and their dreams, raising the cost of living, lowering the quality of life,” Mr. Booker said in his remarks. “I’m inspired now that we’re joining together across sectors, across parties, across the country, and saying, ‘We are going to manifest the will to turn this around.’ ”

The payoff in doing that would be great.

“Imagine our kids begging and pleading, throwing tantrums to get you to buy more fruits vegetables and whole grains,” Mrs. Obama said, adding that’s precisely what’s possible with more information, responsible marketing with better labels, and greater access and affordability of healthy foods.

“So let’s get to work,” she said. “We can make this happen.”

George Washington President Steven Knapp, who opened Friday’s session, called the first lady “a passionate advocate for ending the epidemic of childhood obesity.”

“Mrs. Obama has inspired many individuals and institutions, including our university, to look for innovative ways of improving the health of our local and global communities,” he said.

The university has made obesity and food issues a focus of its mission, from the Urban Food Task Force to the School of Public Health and Health Services and its Department of Exercise Science, to the School of Medicine and Health Sciences and the researchers and practitioners who work with Children’s National Medical Center.

A number of students were able to attend the speech. Kelley Vargo, a first-year graduate student pursing a master’s in public health communication and marketing, said the keynote was “the perfect balance between personal stories, shocking statistics and addressing the private sector’s role in our nation’s fight against obesity.”