Let’s Move: Advocating to Make Michelle Obama’s Vision of Ending Childhood Obesity a Reality

February 10, 2010

By Mark Bishop, Deputy Director

Yesterday Michelle Obama announced her nationwide initiative to
prevent childhood obesity. She painted a picture of compassion, vision
and engagement. I couldn't imagine anyone who saw her announcement and didn't walk away impressed and inspired.

It
isn't about inches and pounds, and it's not about how kids look. It has
nothing to do with that. It's about how our kids feel. And how they
feel about themselves.

In my seven years
working on this issue, I've never seen the messaging of an issue so
complex and nuanced delivered so well and so concisely. She was able to
paint a complete picture of a complex issue in less than 70 seconds.
(For those looking for the video, you can get it here, and this message below starts at 39:30). If I may paraphrase:

Pediatricians are seeing high blood pressure, high cholesterol more and more kids with type II diabetes;

Our teachers are seeing bullying and teasing;

Our school counselors are seeing depression and low self esteem;

Coaches are seeing kids struggling to keep up or worse yet sitting on the sideline unable to engage;

Our military leaders are reporting that obesity is one of the most common disqualifiers for military service;

Economic experts tell us that we are spending outrageous amounts of money treating obesity related conditions;

And public health experts are telling us that our current generation is on track to have a shorter life span than their parents;

And none of us want this future for our kids or for our country.

And most importantly, for those watching, she was able to deliver a message that spread the blame, without pointing fingers.

Many
parents desperately want to do the right thing, but they feel the deck
is stacked against them. They know their kids' health is their
responsibility, but they feel it is completely out of their control.

The
first lady did a remarkable job of framing this issue in a way that
calls us all to action on behalf of children's health rather than
calling out any one individual or group as a culprit. And this is where
I realize how well she is navigating tricky waters.

The
reality is that childhood obesity is an issue that exists precariously
in the nexus of personal and political decisions. How do you talk about
it in a way that moves systems-level change and not in a way that
touches on personal sensitivities about weight? At HSC, we've often
navigated this challenge by focusing on health, of course, and also on
justice: all children deserve an opportunity to be healthy, and the
reality is that our systems don't currently provide that opportunity to
everyone.

While I'm glad to see Michelle Obama drawing attention
to the systems-level nature of the problems that have gotten us to this
point, I also hope that her initiatve will be effective in helping
produce the systems-level change we'll need to solve the problem. When
we all agree that the childhood obesity epidemic isn't the “fault” of
any one group or one cause — that it's not about bad parenting or bad
foods or bad people — we're left with the challenge of changing
policies so that they support healthy lifestyles and the goal of
eliminating childhood obesity.

Our current set of policies —
touching on food subsidies, education priorities, health care, urban
planning and more — affect how available healthy food and physical
activity are for us and our communities. And while we all need to make
healthy decisions for ourselves, at a very fundamental level we need
systems that put us in a position of being able to make good decisions.
We need policies that give all kids the opportunity to eat well and be
active. 

The
truth is our kids didn't do this to themselves. Our kids don't decide
what's served to them at school or whether or not there's time for gym
or recess. Our kids don't choose to make food products with tons of
sugar and sodium in super sized portions and to have those products
marketed to themselves everywhere they turn. 

Yesterday's
announcements and activities indicate that we're on the path to begin
making policy change; along with the first lady's announcement,
President Obama signed a presidential memorandum
establishing a taskforce on childhood obesity and directing agencies
such as the USDA to investigate and report back on what they can do to
support the initiative's goal.

The first lady also launched LetsMove.gov,
a website with tools and background on the initiative. The website
includes information about relevant programs and resources; it also
specifically addresses policy change that will make a difference on
these issues. I'm especially heartened to see schools identified as one
of the main areas of focus.

But nothing should be taken for
granted; we all have a great deal of work ahead in helping ensure that
this energy leads to the changes we need in schools.

One of
the most pressing and timely ways we can do this is to speak up for a
strong and well-funded reauthorization of the Child Nutrition program,
which can bring healthier meals to more children who need them
nationwide. President Obama's proposed budget makes it clear that child nutrition is a priority. Now we all need to raise our voices to let Congress know that this is the right priority. You can take action at HSC's online Child Nutrition resource center.

As part of this advocacy, we're also getting students involved in the Cooking up Change
healthy cooking contests, creating healthy, tasty school meals and
bringing those meals to Congress. You can learn more and get involved
with Cooking up Change here.

We
applaud the first lady's tremendous effort to end childhood obesity in
a generation. As advocates, we can all learn from her engaging and
caring approach to the issue. And we must all continue to advocate for
the systems change that will make this impressive vision a reality.