First lady scores points with her cause

The Kansas City Star (Sunday) - - WASHINGTON | - By MAR­GARET TALEV

Michelle Obama is the pub­lic face of the “Let’s Move!” cam­paign against child obe­sity.

If there’s any doubt that op­pos­ing child­hood obe­sity is a po­lit­i­cal win­ner, as well as a noble cause, Michelle Obama’s up­com­ing trip to Mis­sis­sippi, the na­tion’s most obese state, may be more proof.

Gov. Ha­ley Bar­bour, a portly Repub­li­can who is mulling a chal­lenge to Pres­i­dent Barack Obama in 2012, will join the first lady at a Wed­nes­day event in Jack­son pro­mot­ing school nutri­tion and ex­er­cise. Bar­bour, a for­mer lob­by­ist who heads the Repub­li­can Gov­er­nors As­so­ci­a­tion, re­cently said that if he lost 40 pounds, it would mean he’s run­ning for pres­i­dent or has can­cer.

Be­fore head­ing south, Obama will speak Mon­day in Wash­ing­ton to the School Nutri­tion As­so­ci­a­tion’s Leg­isla­tive Action Con­fer­ence. Th­ese ap­pear­ances fol­low oth­ers that have got­ten at­ten­tion in re­cent weeks.

As Obama set­tles into her post as the pub­lic face of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s new “Let’s Move!” cam­paign to com­bat the grow­ing prob­lem of child­hood obe­sity, ad­vo­cates are watch­ing how her role will evolve — and ul­ti­mately how ag­gres­sive or suc­cess­ful her hus­band’s ad­min­is­tra­tion will be at chang­ing the stan­dards of the food and bev­er­age in­dus­tries, schools, and un­healthy eaters and their en­ablers.

Will the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion push taxes on so­das? Sug­ary juices and chocolate milk? Re­strict farm sub­si­dies re­lated to corn and sweet­en­ers? How will reg­u­la­tors deal with oft­ma­ligned high-fruc­tose corn syrup? Will meat and an­i­mal fat get new scru­tiny? What new food and bev­er­age la­bel­ing might ap­pear?

Should health in­sur­ance rates re­flect adults’ and chil­dren’s di­ets? Should food ad­ver­tis­ing on TV be reined in, and in this deficit-rid­den era, how much money can the fed­eral gov­ern­ment spend on some of the ini­tia­tives the Oba­mas fa­vor to get more fresh and health food into in­ner city mar­kets and school lunch pro­grams?

The first in­di­ca­tions will come this year. Reau­tho­riza­tion of the Child Nutri­tion Act is over­due. The Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion is con­sid­er­ing stan­dards for new front-of­pack­age la­bel­ing.

In his Feb. 9 memo es­tab­lish­ing an in­ter­a­gency task force on child­hood obe­sity, Pres­i­dent Obama set a 90-day dead­line for a plan. That ef­fort will pull to­gether his eco­nomic and bud­get ad­vis­ers, as well as of­fi­cials on the first lady’s staff and in de­part­ments that over­see ev­ery­thing from health and food and drug reg­u­la­tion to ed­u­ca­tion and agri­cul­ture. The task force is led by the pres­i­dent’s do­mes­tic pol­icy ad­viser, not the first lady.

For­mer food and drug ad­min­is­tra­tor David Kessler said that more leg­is­la­tion and gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion prob­a­bly are es­sen­tial to get­ting obe­sity in chil­dren and adults un­der con­trol.

How­ever, Kessler, who in re­cent years has been as pas­sion­ate about teach­ing Amer­i­cans about the dan­gers of overeat­ing and junk food as he once was about to­bacco reg­u­la­tion, said that gov­ern­ment in­ter­ven­tion won’t work without a par­al­lel ef­fort to change so­ci­ety’s norms about how much and what kind of food and drink to con­sume.

About one in three Amer­i­can chil­dren is over­weight or obese to­day, with asthma, heart dis­ease and can­cer on the rise as a re­sult, and re­lated health costs in the bil­lions each year.

Obama’s spokes­woman role on that front has been “pitch per­fect” so far, Kessler said.

“Laws, leg­is­la­tion, pol­icy is all im­por­tant, but how you look at it is key. Do you need to do front-of-pack­age la­bel­ing? Ab- so­lutely. Menu la­bel­ing? Yes. Do you need to change farm sub­si­dies? Yes. Does the FDA have to act? Yes. The CDC? Yes. The USDA? Those things will come. But she said ‘it’s im­por­tant,’ and that’s how you start.

“There’s a cook in a school, I can as­sure you, some­where in the United States, who lis­tened to the first lady and is chang­ing be­cause of it. Tackling obe­sity and child­hood obe­sity is as hard as any­thing we’ve ever done. You can live without cigarettes, but you can’t live without food.”

PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS | AP

Michelle Obama

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