How Michelle Obama might continue her fight against fat

Michelle Obama made childhood obesity her signature issue. Another first lady's legacy shows how Obama might continue her efforts after leaving the White House.

AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta
Michelle Obama gives her final speech as first lady at the 2017 School Counselor of the Year ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Jan. 6, 2017.

Michelle Obama made a promise to America’s young people in her farewell address on Friday. “Know that I will be with you, rooting for you and working to support you for the rest of my life.”

Those words capped off eight years of supporting US youth with various initiatives. Since her husband took office, Michelle Obama has made childhood obesity her signature issue, working with schools, celebrity chefs, food companies, and Congress to reduce the percentage of overweight US children and teens.

How much credit Mrs. Obama deserves may be debated, but in 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported major decreases in obesity among children aged two to four between 2004-2012, and increases in the quality of school lunches. But with the US obesity rate at 17.2 percent, much work remains, as the First Lady herself acknowledges.

“This has truly become a movement,” Obama told reporters last October, “and it certainly won’t end when I leave the White House because we’ve still got a long way to go before we solve this problem.”

Previous first ladies’ experiences may hold lessons for Mrs. Obama as she prepares to leave the White House. Several of her predecessors used the prestige of the first lady’s office to advocate for youth. Nancy Reagan urged children to “Just Say No” to drugs; both Barbara and Laura Bush promoted education and literacy. Their post-White House work shows the opportunities and challenges that Mrs. Obama’s anti-obesity campaign may face.

Barbara Bush continued her literacy campaign after her husband, President George H.W. Bush, left office in 1993. In 2015, the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy reported spending more than $7 million on child and adult literacy programs. Charity Navigator gave the group a score of 94.31 out of 100.

Michelle Obama may take a similar path. Curbing childhood obesity, like illiteracy, often demands coordinated action from several groups: schools, parents, doctors, and food companies. The infrastructure exists for Obama to manage and communicate with these different actors after she leaves the White House. When the federal Let’s Move! Campaign was announced in 2010, the Partnership for a Healthier America was launched to align corporate and philanthropic obesity programs with the government’s. Obama currently serves as the Partnership’s Honorary Chair, but may take a more active role after January 20th.

But developments in literacy – Bush’s signature issue – also show the limits to fighting social issues through the private sector. A series of international tests administered in developed countries between 1994 and 2008 ranked American adults’ document literacy seventh in both years; their prose literacy ranking dropped from sixth to eighth during this period. According to ProLiteracy, “more than 36 million adults in the United States cannot read, write, or do basic math above a third grade level.”

Many educators tasked with changing this situation see a need for greater federal funding. In December 2015, the American Library Association urged Congress to pass the Every Student Succeeds Act, warning about “the lack of support for too many of our students in thousands of schools across the country... the ALA has been disheartened by this lack of support for effective school library programs and comprehensive literacy instruction at the federal, state, and local levels because schools with effective school library programs ensure their students have the best chance to succeed.”

Many would argue that to achieve success on a national scale, requires federal and state resources and policies. To this end, Michelle Obama’s obesity campaign has been backed by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which sets standards for school lunches and funds a variety of nutritional initiatives.

How will this Act fare under the Trump Administration and a Republican Congress? In December, the secretary of agriculture dismissed the possibility of its repeal.

I don’t think that any administration...would be able to roll back everything that’s been done in the nutrition space,” Tom Vilsack told reporters. “I think there is a consensus — and I believe it’s a bipartisan consensus — that we have had, and continue to have, a challenge with obesity.”

It’s too early to tell if that “consensus” will hold. But if Congress or the Trump Administration sets its sights on dismantling the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act and other anti-obesity programs, it wouldn't surprise anyone if Mrs. Obama spoke out.

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