USA First Look

Michelle Obama to cede FLOTUS title, but her PHA legacy could live on

Michelle Obama's food nonprofit, Partnership for a Healthy America, will continue its work convincing food companies to improve nutrition content and labeling of products, the group said.

US first lady Michelle Obama helps prepare a salad at the White House, using the summer crop from the White House Kitchen Garden, in 2014.
Kevin Lamarque/Reuters/File
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Come January 20, Michelle Obama will give up her title of First Lady – but her influence on America's public health is expected to continue from beyond the White House. 

Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA), the non-profit she helped to launch in 2010 in conjunction with her "Let's Move!" initiative, will continue its work urging food companies to improve nutrition content and the labeling of products in 2017 and beyond. Mrs. Obama is the honorary chair of PHA. 

"I'm hoping her leadership, based on her experience as a mother, will create momentum, with a lot of groups working together in a way that will outlast the Obama administration," James Sallis, the director of the nonprofit Active Living Research, told the Monitor shortly after Mrs. Obama introduced her "Let's Move!" campaign to fight childhood obesity in 2010.

Nearly seven years later, nutrition advocates say, her influence has indeed created momentum that is likely to outlast her First Lady title. 

"Michelle Obama has been a tremendous leader in this space," said Larry Soler, the president and chief executive of the group, as reported by Reuters. "That legacy is going to continue for a long time after this." 

Since its founding, PHA has created voluntary deals with a number of food companies, hospitals, universities, and hotel chains aimed at improving nutritional content in food offerings. As President-elect Donald Trump prepares to take office, the future of nutrition policy is unknown, as lawmakers are expected to crack down on what one called "burdensome new rules" regarding food. Healthy school lunches and menu labeling standards are among the Obama-era changes that may be challenged, as Republicans have in recent years introduced legislation that would overhaul the school lunch program to make school food "more edible" and dial back access to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. 

While Trump has yet to select an agriculture secretary, he has nominated Representative Tom Price of Georgia to head the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the National Institutes of Health and works with the US Department of Agriculture to develop dietary guidelines. Rep. Price opposes Obamacare and voted for a bill to ban state labeling of genetically-modified ingredients. 

But nutrition advocates say that regardless of any regulatory changes that may take place in the coming years, the private sector partnerships created during Mrs. Obama's time at PHA with corporations such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc will likely last beyond 2016.

Some companies have already promised to maintain their relationship with PHA after the Obamas leave the White House. 

"Our commitment to provide healthy food – specifically for young people – will not only continue but it will grow," a spokesman for Wisconsin-based Kwik Trip, which partnered with PHA this year to offer more fruit, vegetables, and whole-grain foods at its stores for a low cost, told Reuters. 

Going forward, "I will always be here as a partner in this effort – always," Mrs. Obama said earlier this year. 

"I've always felt very alive using my gifts and talents to help other people. I sleep better at night. I'm happier," the First Lady told Vogue for an interview in the magazine's December issue. "So we'll look back at the issues that I've been working on. The question is: How do I engage in those issues from a new platform? I can't say right now, because we can't spend that much time really doing the hard work of vetting offers or ideas or options because we're still closing things out here."

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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