The new campaign against junk food
AP File Photo
Michelle Obama walks with elementary school students on the South Lawn of the White House after harvesting vegetables from the White House garden in October 2009. That was about the time the first lady helped launch the Letís Move! initiative to get kids eating healthier.
When we began our Letís Move! initiative four years ago, we set one simple but ambitious goal: to end the epidemic of childhood obesity in a generation so that kids born today will grow up healthy.
To achieve this goal, we have adhered to one clear standard: what works. The initiatives we undertake are evidence-based, and we rely on the most current science. Research indicated that kids needed less sugar, salt and fat in their diets, so we revamped school lunch menus accordingly.
When data showed that the lack of nearby grocery stores negatively affected peopleís eating habits, we worked to get more fresh-food retailers into underserved areas. Studies on habit formation in young children drove our efforts to get healthier food and more physical activity into child care centers.
Today, we are seeing glimmers of progress. Tens of millions of kids are getting better nutrition in school; families are thinking more carefully about food they buy, cook and eat; companies are rushing to create healthier products to meet the growing demand; and the obesity rate is finally beginning to fall from its peak among our youngest children.
So we know that when we rely on sound science, we can actually begin to turn the tide on childhood obesity.
But unfortunately, weíre now seeing attempts in Congress to undo so much of what weíve accomplished on behalf of our children. Take, for example, whatís going on now with the Women, Infants and Children program, known as WIC. This is a federal program designed to provide supplemental nutrition to low-income women and their babies and toddlers. The idea is to fill in the gaps in their diets ó to help them buy items like fresh produce that they canít afford on their own ó and give them the nutrition theyíre missing.
Right now, the House of Representatives is considering a bill to override science by mandating that white potatoes be included on the list of foods that women can purchase using WIC dollars. Now, there is nothing wrong with potatoes. The problem is that many women and children already consume enough potatoes and not enough of the nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables they need. Thatís why the Institute of Medicine ó the nonpartisan scientific body that advises on the standards for WIC ó has said that potatoes should not be part of the WIC program.
Unfortunately, this isnít an isolated occurrence. Weíre seeing the same kind of scenario unfold with our school lunch program. Back in 2010, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which set higher nutritional standards for school lunches, also based on recommendations from the Institute of Medicine. Today, 90 percent of schools report that they are meeting these new standards. As a result, kids are now getting more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other foods they need to be healthy.
This is a big win for parents who are working hard to serve their kids balanced meals at home and donít want their efforts undermined during the day at school. And itís a big win for all of us since we spend more than $10 billion a year on school lunches and should not be spending those hard-earned taxpayer dollars on junk food for our children.
Yet some members of the House of Representatives are now threatening to roll back these new standards and lower the quality of food our kids get in school. They want to make it optional, not mandatory, for schools to serve fruits and vegetables to our kids. They also want to allow more sodium and fewer whole grains than recommended into school lunches. These issues will be considered when the House Appropriations Committee takes up the annual spending bill for the Agriculture Department.
Remember a few years ago when Congress declared that the sauce on a slice of pizza should count as a vegetable in school lunches? You donít have to be a nutritionist to know that this doesnít make much sense. Yet weíre seeing the same thing happening again with these new efforts to lower nutrition standards in our schools.
Our children deserve so much better than this. Even with the progress we have made, one in three children in this country is still overweight or obese. One in three is expected to develop diabetes in his or her lifetime. And this isnít just about our childrenís health; itís about the health of our economy as well. We already spend an estimated $190 billion a year treating obesity-related conditions. Just think about what those numbers will look like in a decade or two if we donít start solving this problem now.
The bottom line is very simple: As parents, we always put our childrenís interests first. We wake up every morning and go to bed every night worrying about their well-being and their futures. And when we make decisions about our kidsí health, we rely on doctors and experts who can give us accurate information based on sound science. Our leaders in Washington should do the same.
Michelle Obama is first lady of the United States.