03/23/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why Michelle Obama's Initiative to Reduce Childhood Obesity Will Fail

First Lady Michelle Obama has a legacy she wants to leave behind: a drastic reduction in childhood obesity. Yesterday, at a Mayors Conference in Washington D.C., she announced a new initiative in this spirit, to be formally announced in February.

After presenting the dismal stats (around 18% of kids are obese), Mrs. Obama outlined what is to be a joint effort at the federal, municipal, and non-profit level.

"The idea here is very simple: to put in place commonsense, innovative solutions that empower families and communities to make healthy decisions for their kids."

The main points:

  • improve school lunches
  • more physical activity (including school phys-ed cut due to budget constraints)
  • access to fresh and healthy foods in all communities (nutrition-deserts are all too common in poor urban areas)
  • nutrition education for kids and their parents.

This is a great plan and Mrs Obama deserves kudos for bringing childhood obesity to our collective attention. No doubt her status as the nation's number-one mom, with personal experiences and challenges in feeding her family, make her one of the best champions for the cause.

However ...

I'm sorry, First Lady, your plan, while commendable, doesn't have a fighting chance.

Here's why:

It is far more profitable for America to "fix" obesity related ailments than to prevent them. A partial list of industries that stand to lose if people actually begin to eat right, stop gaining weight and stop getting sick -

  • Junk food manufacturers (over 100 billion dollars in annual revenues)
  • Weight Loss (tens of billions of dollars)
  • Supplements (tens of billions)
  • Healthcare (over 100 billion dollars annually in obesity related treatments)
  • Fast food establishments (over 300 billion dollars)

Now here's who stands to gain from Mrs Obama's initiative: you.

You. A single consumer, without a lobby, without a voice, without a chance against the "machine".

It sounds crazy, but if the First Lady's plan works and we actually slim down and become healthy, millions of jobs will be lost, the economy will take a severe step backward, and hundreds of politicians will lose important financial support from the lobbies representing companies in the aforementioned industries. Do you think they'll let that happen?

The food industry will outspend the government and nonprofits by several orders of magnitude to keep kids munching and slurping away at junk food. Yes, they'll donate a million dollars here and there to rebuild a school gym, or pay to create community nutrition groups. But then they'll go and spend billions on advertising junk food for kids on TV, the Internet, through product placement in movies, video games, and more.

Sorry for the pessimism folks, but childhood obesity is a symptom of a far larger problem of unbalanced interests. Currently only shareholder interest drive business with social, health and environmental costs totally externalized by corporations. Mrs. Obama needs help from her husband on this one. It's a biggie. Unless the government places the responsibility for obesity on the industry that created it, the results of the First Lady's efforts will be summarized by a good photo-op, some PR, and a few isolated "success stories."

What to do at the supermarket:

But there is hope. If each of us, in our own small circles, takes action and starts to buy real food - mostly unprocessed, mostly from the supermarket perimeter, perhaps from local farmers on occasion - our collective actions will send a clear message to the food industry: give us real food.

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