'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.
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But Obama is the first lady, a role that gives her a unique platform for advocacy. And unlike her husband, who has to address the nation’s thorniest issues, she can pick her topics. In her first year, she focused on the needs of military families and on mentoring girls, and, in a hint of the healthy-eating campaign to come, planted a White House garden. By year’s end, she was a celebrity – and more popular than either Hillary Clinton or Laura Bush were after a year in the White House. But if Obama had stopped there, she risked being an underachiever.Skip to next paragraph
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“I would have been critical, probably, if she hadn’t settled on childhood obesity” as her main cause, says Myra Gutin, author of a book on first ladies. “You’ve got so much you can do with that White House podium.”
Obama does have her detractors. Rush Limbaugh accused her of calling her daughters “fat,” which she didn’t. During the campaign, she made some verbal stumbles, and conservative media promoted an image of her as angry and unpatriotic. But her time in the White House has been gaffe-free, a testament to her growth as a public figure.
With all her focus on weight, does she risk becoming a scold?
“Sure, but that’s part of what’s expected,” says Carl Sferrazza Anthony, historian of the National First Ladies’ Library in Canton, Ohio. Nancy Reagan told us not to do drugs. Barbara Bush told us to read books. Michelle Obama wants us to eat our vegetables.
Some pundits have criticized Obama for taking on only safe causes. After all, while her husband does battle amid fierce partisanship in Washington, she can stand aside a top Republican, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, as she did in Jackson, and find complete accord on an issue.
Part of it may be that, as the first African-American first lady, Obama “does not want to rock the boat,” says Gil Troy, an expert on US first ladies at McGill University in Montreal. “This may be selling herself short – but it may also be a shrewd reading of the political terrain.”
In Jackson, Obama’s appearance was pure gold. Talecia Garrett Sa’Aadat felt so strongly about the message – and the messenger – that she brought her father and three daughters, ages 8 to 11, to hear Obama speak.
Ms. Sa’Aadat says she talks to her daughters often about nutrition and has replaced passive after-school programs with more active sports. But she appreciates the extra “backup” from the first lady.
Clifford Austin, a cafeteria worker at Brinkley, praises Obama’s down-to-earth approach, pointing out how she circulated among the children, stopping to talk and hug.
“She gets right in there with them,” Mr. Austin says.
He notes that Mississippi – which has the highest obesity rate in the country – is making small changes. Last year, Brinkley’s cafeteria staff began replacing fryers with ovens. Three times a week, cafeteria staff can work with a physical trainer during school hours. Such innovations, along with the state’s “Let’s Go Walkin’ Mississippi” initiative, and school walking trails, were part of what sparked Obama’s interest in the state.
“It’s a wonderful platform and much-needed,” said local minister Velita Streat, citing the recent movie “Precious,” which links childhood obesity, sexual abuse, and poor self-esteem with low education, teen pregnancy, and a lifetime of struggle. “It’s a starting point.”
Carmen Sisson contributed to this report from Jackson, Miss.