Another role for the Obamas: social entrepreneurs

Barack backs StartupAmerica, which reduce barriers to smale-scale business innovation. Michelle's ChooseMyPlate promotes healthier eating habits.

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama welcome military families to an Independence Day celebration on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington July 4, 2011. The President and first lady back endeavors that champion small-scale entrepreneurs and better nutrition.

It’s easy to be critical of government: It seems that our leaders never do enough to fix all the problems we face, whether they are economic, social, international, or domestic. Often social change comes from the ground up, not the other way around.

But the Obamas have developed two programs that address, respectively, the economic recession and health problems related to malnutrition and obesity. They are worth taking a look at in detail and, though criticism remains relevant, the programs bear innovative and promising aspects.

StartupAmerica is President Obama’s initiative, founded in January 2011, to catalyze small-scale entrepreneurship through facilitating access to capital, creating mentorships, and reducing barriers to innovation. The program aims to achieve these goals through partnerships with companies like Google, which has pledged $100 million to startup companies for use of their advertising services, as well as Cisco, which is providing training for 6,000 entrepreneurs, and IndieGoGo, the crowdfunding website, which is offering startup entrepreneurs the opportunity to raise up to $30 million on the site at a 50 percent reduced fee rate.

In focusing on entrepreneurship and innovation, the Startup America initiative looks to create sustainable job growth, which stands as a potential long-term solution to national economic woes in the US.

“The initiative is looking to stimulate entrepreneurship,” Slava Rubin, founder of crowdfunding platform IndieGoGo, said of StartupAmerica. “Most of the jobs created in America are small businesses. By having more funding, we have more business and more jobs. IndieGoGo is a platform where any person, any small business, can follow their dream and create a business. Many of these businesses have been turned down by banks. It’s really exciting that IndieGoGo is included as a partner – we’re the only one, out of 15, that isn’t a billion-dollar company. I think this really shows how forward-thinking the administration is.”

But it’s not just Barack who’s tackling a serious domestic issue. First Lady Michelle Obama has got her finger on our nation’s pulse and is taking on the widespread and systemic problem of unhealthy eating. At first glance, her two initiatives toward this end, Let’s Move! And ChooseMyPlate, seem like sparsely funded, relatively unfocused programs. The budget for ChooseMyPlate is only $2 million, and neither program has clearly outlined goals or an outcome-based approach. In June, the environmental blog Grist reported, House Republicans were trying to further de-fund these national programs. It is unclear, at this point, how these initiatives are going to achieve widespread impact where they are most needed: in the homes and communities of everyday Americans.

Where these nutritional initiatives could take off, however, is with the distributed and unregulated power of social media. A look at the Twitter hashtag #myplate reveals a preschool teacher who has created a lesson plan using Michelle Obama’s plate recommendations; a CNN health writer engaging in a public, personal challenge to eat according to MyPlate at less than $62 per week; and a foodie blogger who’s made a free, printable, one-page guide to eating according to the MyPlate icon.

Anti-hunger activist and author Joel Berg told Dowser, “In general I think the MyPlate icon is an advance. I think it’s based on sound science and sound understanding of social marketing. In plain English, it tells people what they should do. It doesn’t scold people or tell them eat less, eat this.”

Berg continued, “But as a solution to widespread obesity in this country – absolutely not. It is an important step and will help with obesity a bit. But there are major reasons why we have obesity and malnutrition – flip-sides of the same coin – the vast majority of which have nothing to do with lack of information about nutrition.”

So what does work, then? What programs are out there that do effectively address malnutrition and obesity?

“For all the hammering over big national problems – that we don’t know what to do – I respectfully suggest that we do know what works,” Berg replied. “I don’t know why people are shocked that spending money to help poor people buy food actually works.”

Berg cited affordability of food, not information about nutrition, as the key to creating a healthier American diet.

“The food stamps program has generally been incredibly effective,” he explained. “People can use their benefits to get fresh produce in New York, and there are similar programs around the country that give people additional money to shop at farmers’ markets. Another project is serving breakfast in the classroom. Having nutritious breakfast in a controlled environment is very effective.”

Here’s a sampling of other organizations that are combating unhealthy eating habits through innovative educational and entrepreneurial efforts:

  • Leave It Better – teaching New York City schoolchildren about composting and how to grow their own vegetables as part of science education
  • Revolution Foods – bringing healthy meals and nutrition education to schools around the US.
  • FruitsAndVeggiesMatterMore – Providing news and educational material about nutrition and providing resources for people to change their eating habits

We can’t rely on government to enact all the social change that we need. But we can be glad that these initiatives are out there and incorporate them into already existing movements to create jobs through entrepreneurship and improve America’s eating habits.

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