WASHINGTON — First lady Michelle Obama says banning big servings of sugary drinks isn't anything she'd want to do at the federal level, but she offered some kind words Tuesday for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's effort to do just that. She later issued a statement backing away from taking a stand on New York's controversial proposed ban.
It was a telling example of the fine line the first lady walks as she tries to improve Americans' health and eating habits without provoking complaints that she's part of any "nanny state" telling people how to eat or raise their children.
Asked about Bloomberg's proposal during an interview with The Associated Press, Mrs. Obama said there's no "one-size-fits-all" solution for the country's health challenges. But she said, "We applaud anyone who's stepping up to think about what changes work in their communities. New York is one example."
And asked whether the nation's obesity epidemic warrants taking a more aggressive approach, such as Bloomberg's, she said: "There are people like Mayor Bloomberg who are, and that is perfectly fine."
Mrs. Obama later issued a statement saying that she hadn't intended to weigh in on the Bloomberg plan "one way or the other."
"I was trying to make the point that every community is different and every solution is different and that I applaud local leaders including mayors, business leaders, parents, etc., who are taking this issue seriously and working towards solving this problem."
"But this is not something the administration is pursuing at a federal level and not something I'm specifically endorsing or condemning."
In the interview, Mrs. Obama said she's "trying to create a big tent for people. Our motto is everyone has a role to play in this and I think it's up to communities and families to figure out what role they can play, what role they should play."
Last week, Bloomberg proposed limiting portion sizes of sugary drinks to 16 ounces at the city's restaurants, delis, food trucks, movie theaters and sporting arenas. Regular soda and sports drinks would be affected but not diet sodas.
The proposal is unpopular with most New Yorkers, according to a NY1-Marist poll conducted Sunday. A majority of New York City residents said the proposal was a bad idea and 53 percent said it was more government going too far than good health policy to fight the problem of obesity. The ban is expected to win the approval of the Bloomberg-appointed Board of Health and take effect as early as March.
Mrs. Obama spoke about the Bloomberg plan during an interview promoting her new book, "American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America." The $30 book, which came out last week, traces the story of the garden on the South Lawn and of gardens around the country as the starting point for a national conversation "about the food we eat, the lives we lead, and how all of that affects our children," as Mrs. Obama puts it.
The first lady, wearing a print dress and periwinkle cardigan, enthused over green peppers coming into their own and a fig plant that's finally standing tall after a perilous infancy as she offered a walking tour of the garden. She ducked under some evergreens to point out a row of logs nailed to a post that will soon be sprouting shitake mushrooms.
Then, seated at a picnic table dressed up with a yellow checkered tablecloth, the first lady spoke of the progress that's been made in offering people healthier food choices and better nutrition information.
Mrs. Obama had just come from an appearance with Disney executives, where the company announced it would become the first major media company to ban junk food ads from its TV channels, radio stations and websites intended for children, starting in 2015.
Later in the day, she was scheduled to present a garden-related Top 10 list on CBS' "Late Show With David Letterman."
An example from her list, according to a CBS preview: "No. 7: In his lifetime, the average American will eat half a radish," she said, speaking from the White House Map Room.
And next Tuesday, she'll do a book signing at a Barnes & Noble in Washington – for a limited number of customers who buy a book this week and get a special wristband.
It's all part of the first lady's all-out effort to combat childhood obesity without provoking a backlash by pushing too hard. Mrs. Obama's high favorability ratings show she's largely been able to strike the right tone, a boon to her husband's re-election effort. But there is still sniping from some on the right who say they don't need a government lecture – or more intrusive steps – on what they eat or how they exercise.
Asked if she ever has to bite her tongue at Obama critics – legion in an election year – the first lady batted away the idea, saying she stays away from "all the chatter and the noise."
"It's not a difficult thing for me to do because we've got so much good stuff to talk about – like this book and the garden and getting our kids healthy and active," she said.
Mrs. Obama spoke of the enthusiastic response the garden has elicited from kids all over the country – but not so much from her own daughters.
"You know, they are not interested in gardening," she said. "I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I'm their mother and this is my interest, and they go in the opposite direction."
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