I wanted to share with you a very good article in an upcoming issue of The Nation which assesses the progress -- or lack thereof -- made by Michelle Obama's Let's Move! initiative in combating childhood obesity.
In a balanced and thorough assessment of the First Lady's efforts, the article highlights both her early gains as well as her initiative's seeming retreat in recent months as Let's Move! shifted its focus from food reform to exercise. That change in course is seen by some critics (rightly, I think) as a desire to avoid conflict with Big Food -- and its powerful lobbying arm -- in the midst of a presidential election year. The article also pointedly asks whether Let's Move! has provided political cover and invaluable PR to corporate actors like Walmart and Disney without getting sufficiently meaningful reforms in return. The Nation piece ultimately concludes that few if any truly significant changes have been made by the food industry as a result of Ms. Obama's program.
But the fact that Ms. Obama can't (or won't) wage war with Big Food has never surprised me. Above all else, the First Lady strikes me as a savvy pragmatist, pushing for reforms only where there are clear openings and likely pay-offs. That explains her active involvement in the child nutrition bill re-authorization in 2010 which led to dramatic improvements in school food this year. But she also backs off when she deems the political price too high, as when the White House summarily caved in to industry demands in the battle last year over the voluntary regulation of children's food advertising. That latter episode was deeply disheartening to those of us who care about our children's food environment, but at the same time I never expected Ms. Obama, a First Lady whose hands are tied by her husband's political aspirations, to be the rabble-rousing activist of our dreams.
For me, the bottom line is this: No one in the country has done more than Ms. Obama to bring the issue of childhood obesity front and center in the national consciousness. That she can't fix the problem from the East Wing is unfortunate, though predictable, and it doesn't negate the importance of what she has been able to achieve in the last four years.
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