From Ezekiel J. Emanuel at the Opinionator from the New York Times
During the first spring of the Obama presidency, the First Lady broke
ground on a White House vegetable garden. Then, in February 2010, she
announced the Let’s Move
initiative, a campaign to change the way America’s children eat and
exercise, with the goal of ending childhood obesity in a generation.
the years since, what has Michelle Obama’s work accomplished, besides
(and I can say this from experience) the harvesting of some delicious
lettuce, green beans and honey?
Obama’s campaign has also led to improvements in the access to and
content of school meals — which are where many children get the bulk of
their calories and nutrition. In late 2010, the lame-duck Congress
passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act which, for the first time in 30
years, increased funding for school breakfasts and lunches above the
inflation rate. The act also gives the Agriculture Department authority
to set health standards for all foods sold on school property —
including those in vending machines. Best of all, it reduced government
paperwork to establish eligibility for free or reduced-price school
meals, ensuring that tens of thousands more children will get healthy
food they need.
In conjunction with the Let’s Move campaign, three
of the largest food service companies that operate school cafeterias —
Sodexo, Aramark and Chartwells — committed to meeting recommended levels
of fat, sugar and whole grains in the next 5 years and doubling the
fruits and vegetables they serve over the next 10. Then, just last
month, after a long struggle that included a fight over whether pizza sauce
should count as a serving of vegetables (the final verdict was that it
does), federal regulations upgraded the quality of food in the school
meals to ensure they contain more fruits, vegetables and whole grains,
and less sodium and saturated fat.
There has also been important
progress in the private sector. Walmart, Walgreens, Supervalu and other
smaller grocers have promised to build or expand 1,500 stores that sell
fresh fruits and vegetables in communities without access to healthy
food. The FreshWorks Fund, a team of grocery industry groups, banks and
health care organizations, committed $200 million to eliminating these
so-called “food deserts” in California, bringing access to nutritious
groceries to millions.
Even more impressive, Walmart announced
that, by 2015, it would remove all trans fats and reduce salt and added
sugars by 25 percent and 10 percent, respectively, from thousands of
packaged foods it sells. We know that when Walmart drops salt by 25
percent, everyone will drop salt by 25 percent, because when Walmart
demands suppliers change how they make their products, it drives the
whole marketplace. Walmart has also committed to making healthier foods
In the restaurant world, Darden, which owns Olive
Garden and Red Lobster, among others, has committed to reducing total
calories and salt across its menus, and is offering vegetables, fruit
and milk as the default side dishes and drink for every kid’s meal.
there are plenty of other achievements: the Agriculture Department
redesigned the cluttered food pyramid into an easier-to-follow circular
symbol called MyPlate; the United States Tennis Association is building
or refurbishing 3,000 tennis courts; 1,000 salad bars have been donated
to schools; and, with the health care reform law, chain restaurants are
posting calorie counts on their menus.
It has been only two years
since Let’s Move began, and we can’t know yet if there has been any
reduction in childhood obesity rates. After all, it took nearly 50 years
to convert the country into a fat blob; it will take time to return to a
slim fit. But it is possible.
Most powerful of all, Mrs. Obama’s
campaign has already begun to change the way the food sector —
producers, restaurants and grocery stores — approaches its youngest
customers. With rising public awareness of the importance of good
nutrition, companies are changing their business models, incorporating
nutrition when they design and develop cereals, snacks, menus or school
meals. While not all food companies have changed yet, the market is
beginning to require them to come up with healthier products. At this
rate, I believe we’ll start seeing childhood obesity rates declining
after a few more harvests of the White House garden.