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'Let's Move': Michelle Obama takes on childhood obesity

First lady Michelle Obama has made childhood obesity her signature project with the 'Let's Move' campaign. Wednesday she takes the message to the national Parent Teacher Association at a National Legislative Conference in Arlington, Va.

By Staff writer / March 10, 2010

First lady Michelle Obama launched her nationwide campaign, ‘Let’s Move,’ at the White House in February. Tackling childhood obesity has become her signature issue.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters



Michelle Obama may be the first lady of the United States, but at Brinkley Middle School in Jackson, Miss., last week, most people simply referred to her as “Michelle.”

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Certainly that’s how Mrs. Obama wants it. She has a message to impart, and if people feel comfortable with her, maybe it will get through: America’s kids need to get active and lose weight to end childhood obesity.

One-third of American children are either overweight or obese, and with black and Hispanic children, the figure increases to one-half. Weight-related health issues are also on the rise, and Obama hopes that if children can develop a healthy lifestyle when they’re young, they can avoid these problems both now and as adults.

After a year as first lady, Obama has thrown herself into her signature “Let’s Move” antiobesity campaign, launched Feb. 9, with the verve of a candidate.

Wednesday Obama addresses the National Legislative Conference of the Parent Teacher Association. Her Let's Move campaign, which aims to end childhood obesity in one generation, will be the main topic.

She is reaching out to children, parents, governors, mayors, educators, school nutrition leaders, and food manufacturers. Her goal is ambitious: ending what she calls “the epidemic of childhood obesity” in a generation.

“Everyone has got to do their part,” she told the 1,000 people, almost all black, who came to hear her speak at Brinkley. “That’s why I’ve been traveling around the country, and I’m going to do this for years to come – asking everyone to step up and get involved.”

Tackling obesity isn’t as simple as telling folks to eat less and avoid the bad stuff. Some areas don’t have a full-service grocery store, leaving residents to shop at gas stations and convenience stores, where the only thing that’s crisp and green is the money in the cash register.

Obama calls these grocery-free zones “food deserts,” and they are found in both poor urban neighborhoods and sparsely populated rural areas. President Obama’s fiscal 2011 budget proposes $400 million in financing to help bring grocery stores to underserved areas and help small shops carry healthier items.

Urban food deserts tend to be in minority neighborhoods, and, unlike her husband, the first lady has not hesitated to tackle the racial dimension of policy head-on. When Obama launched her campaign, she acknowledged the challenge some city kids face in getting enough exercise.

“Urban sprawl and fears about safety often mean the only walking they do is out their door to a bus or a car,” she said.

Obama can also speak of her own life – and her role as a mother to two daughters – in a way that makes her relatable. As a child on the South Side of Chicago, she recalls running around outside after school, then coming home to a healthy home-cooked meal. Tall and lanky, Obama did not struggle with weight.

As a working mom – before Obama stepped into her current role, which comes with a household staff of about 100 people – she remembers well the challenge of coming home exhausted and having to make dinner for a family. Too often, fast food was the easy way out. When the girls’ pediatrician warned her about an uptick in their body mass index, that got her attention.

Now, she tells her audience in Jackson, “I’m thinking about all of you as a mother, not as a first lady.”