First lady Michelle Obama is using more carrot than stick in prodding food makers, parents, local schools and governments to step up efforts to reduce childhood obesity.
She's for the food police -- but Mrs. Obama is the good cop.
That doesn't mean she is letting stakeholders off the hook. On Tuesday, Mrs. Obama urged the nation's food makers to produce and market healthier products, ramping up her rhetoric in her anti-childhood obesity campaign in a speech before the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
And on Wednesday, Mrs. Obama -- an admitted lover of an occasional hamburger and fries -- demonstrated her approach by refusing to demonize Twinkies and rejected as "extreme" having the government order warning labels on food contributing to obesity.
"A Twinkie is not a cigarette, you know," Mrs. Obama said at a forum on obesity, sponsored by Newsweek. "And what parents need is just information about what's in the Twinkie and how much of this we can eat. It's not that we can't have a Twinkie. And our kids would be pretty upset. And I am not supporting that." The current Newsweek edition features Mrs. Obama on the cover and an essay by her and articles on childhood obesity inside.
This could be called the Michelle Doctrine: "I'm all in favor of good snacks," she said.
"We grew up with snacks and chips," she said. "We did. But we have to exercise more, parents have to understand what's in the Twinkie; again, how does it fit into the overall diet. So we don't need a warning, we need information. And we need information that's easy to understand. That's something that I said yesterday in the speech. You read labels now and it's like the small print and it's all "oleosutomay" -- or I don't -- the chemicals, you can't even pronounce them, and the portion sizes compared to one, and you've got a small one and a big one. And then, before you know it, you don't know what to buy and how much to give to your kids and in what amounts. That's the kind of information that families need."
The 300-member grocery trade group Mrs. Obama spoke to on Tuesday represents major food, beverage and consumer products companies. The industry is already responding to consumer and government demand for healthier products and cutting back on ads tempting children with food heavy in sugar, salt, and calories. In introducing Mrs. Obama, Richard Wolford, the chairman, president and chief executive of Del Monte, and chairman of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said the industry is "willing to do more" and "willing to go the extra mile."
While food makers have made a lot of progress, Mrs. Obama told them to "move faster and go farther."
Using her toughest language yet, Mrs. Obama told the group, "The truth is we don't have a moment to waste -- because a baby born today could be less than a decade away from showing the first signs of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, Type II diabetes, if he or she is obese as a child. A recent study even found that 3-year-olds who were obese already had one of the symptoms of heart disease.
"So we need you all to step it up. We all need to step up in this country. This is a shared responsibility. That's why I've gone to parents and I've asked them to do their part. They have a responsibility to watch what their kids eat and teach good habits. I've asked medical professionals to do their part. They have a responsibility to screen kids for obesity and help parents with these issues. Educators have a responsibility to build healthy schools. Governors and mayors have a responsibility to build healthy communities. And all of you have a responsibility as well."
Since launching her "Let's Move" anti-obesity campaign Feb. 9 with a ceremony in the Oval Office with President Obama, Mrs. Obama's strategy has been to seek voluntary cooperation among the main players who can help solve the epidemic of childhood obesity.
While Congress and various federal agencies have been working on the obesity problem for years, Mrs. Obama's embrace of the issue as her personal crusade has elevated it and given it a priority in the Obama White House.
"This is a passion," she told the food makers. "This is my mission."
Mrs. Obama has refused to condemn any of the stakeholders, and certainly came to the food makers on Tuesday more as a partner than a scold, even though she was talking to the [eople who have given the nation supersized servings and sugary snacks.
"Portion sizes have exploded," Mrs. Obama said. "Food portions are two to five times bigger than they used to be. And beverage portions have grown as well...all told, we're eating 31 percent more calories than we were just 40 years ago, and that's including 56 percent more fats and oil and 14 percent more sugars and sweeteners."
At the Newsweek event, Mrs. Obama praised the grocery manufacturers. "They have been magnificent," she said. "And I know that there are those who say, well, are they going to really make changes? Look, the people who run those companies are parents and grandparents, too. They care about their kids. They're trying to figure out how to meet the demand and how to give information."
While Congress is working on reauthorizing the legislation dealing with school lunches, and the Obama budget has money in it to create public-private partnerships to get grocery stores into underserved areas sometimes called food deserts, Mrs. Obama has yet to go to Capitol Hill to testify, though she did leave that door open.
Mrs. Obama is not wading into some of the more complex and controversial aspects of obesity, sticking with children rather than adults or the ripple effect federal farm subsidies has on the price of those unpronounceable ingredients in high-calorie snack foods.
While proposals to tax junk foods have been around for years, Mrs. Obama's "Let's Move" initiatives have no federal tax proposals and no mandates. Local governments, she has said, and repeated on Wednesday, may well want to tax sodas. "There are communities that believe that taxing sodas and other things works for them," she said.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Obama has taken a stand. She is OK with Twinkies. Asked Wednesday if Twinkies are safe in the Obama administration, Mrs. Obama laughed and said yes. "I feel good going on record," she said.
Behind the "Let's Move" Strategy
Standing in the back of the room when Mrs. Obama was talking to the grocery association was Sam Kass, a White House chef who been a key player in developing Mrs. Obama's food initiatives. The seeds -- literally -- for Mrs. Obama's successful launching of her "Let's Move" anti-obesity campaign were planted almost exactly one year ago, when ground was broken for her White House kitchen garden on March 20, 2009.
Mrs. Obama's East Wing policy and communications teams, led by Chief of Staff Susan Sher, built on the wildly popular garden to develop her involvement with healthy eating and exercise; in time this evolved into Mrs. Obama's "Let's Move" campaign.