First Lady Takes on Obesity

Calls on grocery stores to open in "food deserts"; decries c-store prices

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama established a task force on childhood obesity, including a national public awareness effort to be led by First Lady Michelle Obama. Among the elements of the plan, according to report by USA Today, is $400 million in tax credits and other incentives "to get grocery stores to move into 'food desert communities' where people don't have access to major grocery stores and have to rely on corner markets, convenience stores and hybrid gas stations that may charge more and have fewer healthful choices. It will also get fresh foods into smaller [image-nocss] stores."

The First Lady "will lead a national public awareness effort to tackle the epidemic of childhood obesity," the President said in a Presidential Memorandum. "She will encourage involvement by actors from every sectorthe public, nonprofit, and private sectors, as well as parents and youthto help support and amplify the work of the federal government in improving the health of our children."

He added, "To meet our goal, we must accelerate implementation of successful strategies that will prevent and combat obesity. Such strategies include updating child nutrition policies in a way that addresses the best available scientific information, ensuring access to healthy, affordable food in schools and communities, as well as increasing physical activity and empowering parents and caregivers with the information and tools they need to make good choices for themselves and their families."

The Department of Health & Human Services shall provide funding and administrative support for the task force to the extent permitted by law and within existing appropriations.

The First Lady's office already has lined up commitments from mayors, business leaders, grocery store owners, school lunch suppliers, non-profit groups, retailers and foundations, said USA Today.

According to the newspaper, other elements of the plan, several of which will need approval in Congress because they require new funding or offer tax breaks, include:
The American Academy of Pediatrics will encourage its 60,000 members to check the body mass index (BMI), a number that takes into account height and weight, of all children at every checkup, and to give every child a kid-friendly prescription with suggestions for healthy, active living at those visits, says Judith Palfrey, president of the academy. The group had been working on the idea, and the campaign "was the magic moment to roll it out with the blessing of the first lady," she says. A new foundation made up of existing foundations and groups to monitor the campaign. $25 million for schools to renovate their kitchens to replace deep fryers with equipment needed to store more produce and serve more nutritious food. $10 billion over 10 years for the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act. Some of the money would be used to provide free and reduced-priced school meals for a million more children a year and to help schools serve more nutritious foods.

The issues Michelle Obama is addressing are serious, said the report, but she says she will keep it conversational. "The tone, hopefully, that I approach this, is one that is inclusive, and not judgmentaland helpful."

She is taking that conversation to schools around the country, mayors' organizations and the nation's governors. And her campaign has commitments from the nation's pediatricians, children's TV networks and websites such as Nickelodeon and sports teams such as the New York Yankees. Each will do whatever it can do best, she said, to spread the message that it matters what children eat and how much they move.

The First Lady said she will use all the power of her White House pulpit to promote a multifaceted campaign that will include more healthful food in schools, more accurate food labeling, better grocery stores in communities that do not have them, public service announcements and efforts to get children to be more active.

Political observers said it is the right kind of campaign for a first lady who wants to make a difference but wants to be careful not to delve too far into policy the way Hillary Rodham Clinton did with health care when her husband held the presidency, said the report.
The most recent entry in The Atlantic political blog, "The Obama Obesity Proposals: The Good, The Bad, The Missing," said that the $400 million to encourage grocery store expansion to food deserts is not enough:

"The Bad: Government website. Well designed; probably a waste of time. (The Department of Agriculture food atlas is a great idea, however.) The relatively small amount of money being earmarked to reduce the number of food desertsthose areas where access to quality, nutritious food products in under-served. But $400 million isn't going to cut it. The geography of food production, distribution and delivery is a major contributor to urban childhood obesity, and this moneyassuming it all gets fundedis barely going to make a dent. Each quality supermarket costs about $5 million to build. The Obama plan models its efforts after the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative, which has spent in excess of $40 million over the course of five years to solve the urban and rural grocery gaps and provide better food to under-served communities. Evidence that these efforts are worth the expenditurethat they causally reduce childhood obesityis, as of yet, lacking, but that's largely because the program is barely a decade old."

To read the full blog entry, click here.

Click herefor the full text of the Presidential Memorandum establishing the task force.

Click here to read the First Lady's announcement.

And click here to visit the Let's Move campaign's official website.