Opinion: Michelle Obama talks black obesity, breast-feeding and $31 million


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Taking her campaign against obesity before the Congressional Black Caucus, First Lady Michelle Obama said childhood obesity had become a national epidemic and was particularly bad in black communities.

She said the situation had become so serious, especially in black communities, that today’s children ‘might be the first generation in history on track to lead shorter lives than their parents.’


Obama drew laughter from the black legislators in D.C. when she said, ‘We all need to start making some changes to how our families eat. Now, everyone loves a good Sunday dinner. Me included. And there’s nothing wrong with that. The problem is when we eat Sunday dinner Monday through Saturday.’ (Her full speech text is below.)

She called obesity, especially in the black community, the ‘slow, quiet, everyday threat that doesn’t always appear to warrant the headline urgency of some of the other issues that we face.’

A day after Obama called on the National Restaurant Assn. for drastic changes in ...

... the contents, food preparation and menus of its establishments to facilitate a radical reformation of eating habits, even if that meant less business, the first lady acknowledged: ‘The fact is that many of us, and many of the folks that we know and love, have struggled with our weight. And often, it becomes the kind of thing that we just sort of accept as part of our daily lives, as something we know we should do something about, but we always push it off until later. It winds up taking a back burner to more pressing issues like crumbling schools, and neighborhoods that aren’t safe, and families that can’t pay the bills or even put food on the table.’

She said the obesity health problem with its nebulous varied causes had become so urgent that finding solutions could no longer be postponed.

She likened the anti-obesity program to the civil rights movement and called on the legislators to initiate or join local programs to improve eating habits and the availability of nutritious foods, as well as parks, playgrounds and safer streets where children could be more active and play. To plant neighborhood gardens or perhaps create dance teams, even in faith-based institutions.


Obama cited some places that have persuaded neighborhood liquor stores to add produce sections. The audience laughed.

She said another way to fight obesity was to promote breast-feeding, especially in black communities where, she said, 40% of children never receive the health benefits of breast-feeding.

And Obama announced $31 million in new federal grants to 11 communities to encourage innovation in fighting obesity.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Remarks by Michelle Obama to the Congressional Black Caucus Conference, as provided by the White House
MRS. OBAMA: How’s everybody? (Applause.) Well, good afternoon!

AUDIENCE: Good afternoon!

MRS. OBAMA: How’s everybody doing?


MRS. OBAMA: Very good. It is a true pleasure and an honor to be here to kick off this year’s Legislative Conference. And I want to thank you so much for having me here today. It is truly an honor for me.

I want to start by thanking Congressman Donald Payne and Congresswoman Barbara Lee for those wonderful introductions, but also for their extraordinary work and their support on behalf not just of my husband’s administration but of this nation. And I’d also like to thank Dr. Elsie Scott for her outstanding leadership, as well, so let’s -- (applause) -- Dr. Scott, thank you so much. (Applause.)


And finally, I want to thank the Congressional Black Caucus, the CBCF, all the panelists here today, and all of you for being here and for what you do every day to lift up families and communities across this country, because time and again, you’ve taken those tough stands and been that lone dissenting voice.

Time and again, you’ve asked those hard questions, and spoken those inconvenient truths, all along refusing to give up on the endlessly difficult task of building that “more perfect union.”

For more than four decades, you have taken a stand on behalf of folks who’ve been forgotten -- folks who too often feel like they’re invisible; not just African Americans, but all Americans who need someone on their side again.

And that’s particularly true when it comes to your work on behalf of our nation’s children. You’ve helped more students pursue careers in fields like medicine and engineering. You’ve worked to groom young leaders, and give them the tools to fulfill their God-given potential. You’ve been a voice in Congress on every challenge they face –- from healthcare and education to poverty and crime and so much more.

And that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to be here today, because I want to talk with you about another issue that I believe presents an urgent threat to the health and well-being of our young people -- and that is the epidemic of childhood obesity that affects every community in this country –- but it affects the African American community in particular.

You just heard the statistics. They’re all too familiar: how nearly 40 percent of African American kids are overweight or obese. Nearly one in two –- that is half of our children –- will develop diabetes in some point in their lives.


But I also know how easy it is to rattle off those numbers, and to shake our heads, and move on, because in the black community especially, these persistent health problems can become so routine that we come to expect it, sometimes even tolerate it.

And it’s a lot harder to really feel what those statistics mean, because the truth is that in too many of our communities, childhood obesity has become that kind of slow, quiet, everyday threat that doesn’t always appear to warrant the headline urgency of some of the other issues that we face.

The fact is that many of us, and many of the folks that we know and love, have struggled with our weight.

And often, it becomes the kind of thing that we just sort of accept as part of our daily lives, as something we know we should do something about, but we always push it off until later. It winds up taking a backburner to more pressing issues like crumbling schools, and neighborhoods that aren’t safe, and families that can’t pay the bills or even put food on the table.

But today, I just want us to step back for a moment and ask ourselves some hard questions about what childhood obesity really means for the prospects of our next generation.

We should ask ourselves what does it mean when we hear stories of doctors seeing obesity-related conditions like type II diabetes in children that they only used to see in adults?


And what does it mean when our kids go through life feeling unwell, not having the energy to run around and play and enjoy their childhood today, and not having the stamina and the strength they will need to build successful careers and keep up with their own kids and grandkids in the future?

And what does it mean when study after study shows that regular exercise and proper nutrition significantly improves academic performance, but that many of our kids aren’t getting enough of either?

What does it mean when, because so many of our kids are struggling with obesity, some experts are now saying that our kids might be the first generation in history on track to lead shorter lives than their parents?

I mean, we’ve got to think about that. I mean, think about the fact that we may have reached a point where a future generation will be worse, and not better, than the one before.

See, I think it means we’ve got a pretty big problem on our hands, and one that we should be taking just as seriously as all those other hot button, front-burner issues we’ve all been fighting so hard to address.

I think it means that we as a community, and as a nation, need to make solving childhood obesity a top priority for our kids’ future.


I think we need to make a commitment –- not just for a few months, or a few years, but a long-term commitment to do what it takes to solve this problem once and for all, because the truth is that short-term, one-off efforts simply aren’t going to cut it.

Childhood obesity isn’t some simple, discrete issue. There’s no one cause we can pinpoint. There’s no one program we can fund to make it go away. Rather, it’s an issue that touches on every aspect of how we live and how we work.

And we can’t just declare that our kids need to get more exercise when they don’t have parks to play in or safe streets to walk on.(Applause.)

We can’t just tell folks to put more fruits and vegetables on the dinner table when many a family lives miles from the nearest grocery store. (Applause.)

And we certainly can’t demand healthier school lunches when our schools don’t have the money, the equipment or the expertise to make that happen.

And that’s really one of the key principles of “Let’s Move!” “Let’s Move!” is a nationwide campaign to address childhood obesity all across this country. It’s the idea that we need to attack this problem from every single angle.


And that’s why, since we launched “Let’s Move!” back in February, we’ve gotten folks all across the country engaged in solving this problem -– from educators and doctors to mayors, food producers, even restaurant owners.

And as we launch the next phase of “Let’s Move!” there’s another key principle that we’ll be focused on –- and that’s getting results, because the last thing our kids need is lip service, or a lot of fancy slogans that aren’t backed up with any action. (Applause.)

See, we knew we needed to be ambitious, which is why we set a goal of solving the problem within a generation.

And we knew we needed to be rigorous about meeting these goals, which is why we’ve laid out a series of benchmarks that we plan to meet each year, so that we can stay on track to meeting this goal. That includes everything from getting more doctors to screen kids for obesity, to eliminating those food deserts by getting more grocery stores in our communities and ensuring that all families have access to fresh, healthy food right where they live.

And because it’s important to prevent obesity early, we’re also working to promote breastfeeding, especially in the black community -- (applause) -- where 40 percent of our babies never get breast-fed at all, even in the first weeks of life, and we know that babies that are breast-fed are less likely to be obese as children.

But while government has a role to play here -– in raising awareness, and securing resources and pushing things forward -– when it comes down to it, no one here in Washington knows our communities like we do. The folks in Washington don’t have the kind of personal relationships or know-how that it takes to get things done on the ground.


So I’m not just here today to talk to you about the problem. I am also here to enlist each and every one of you in our fight to find a solution.

Now, those solutions, they begin in our own cities, in our own towns, in our own neighborhoods, because we know that if we want healthy kids, we have to have healthy communities, right?

We need folks like all of you, who are leaders in your communities, we need you to start a conversation, to get involved with groups who are already making progress, and to bring folks to the table to attack this issue together.

We need all stakeholders involved, and we need every resource at our disposal. That includes schools, and faith organizations, businesses, non-profits, you name it.

And together, you can do something as simple as hosting a farmers market in your community, or cleaning up a park so that kids have a safe place to play. Or you can do something as involved as working to redesign your entire city or overhaul your school’s lunch program.

A group of folks in Detroit offer a wonderful example of the difference that can be made in communities. With one of the highest obesity rates in the nation, many Detroit residents live at least twice as far from the nearest grocery store as they do to a fast-food restaurant or a convenience store.

And that’s why a group of community leaders and local churches got together and started what they call “Peaches and Greens” -- (laughter) -- where five days a week, they drive a truck, like the “vegetable man” -- you all heard -- remember the truck? My parents used to talk about it. They drive a truck through the city, selling fresh, affordable produce. And they’ve set up a small market. They’ve planted a community garden. They’ve even convinced some of the local liquor stores to stock more fruits and vegetables. (Laughter.)


Now, they didn’t have to pass any new laws, or raise earth-shattering amounts of money to get this done. They saw a need, they filled up a truck, and they started driving. And there is really no reason why communities across the country can’t follow this lead. And that’s why we’re dedicated to doing everything we can to support these kind of efforts.

And today, I’m proud that the Department of Health and Human Services has announced that they will be investing $31 million in new grants. These grants are called -- (applause) -- they’re calling these grants Communities Putting Prevention to Work.

And these grants, made possible through the health care reform law, will go to 11 communities and states across the country. They will help support innovative programs designed to fight childhood obesity and make our communities healthier.

In Pitt County, North Carolina, for example, they’re going to use their grant towards making corner stores healthier and improving access to healthy produce.

In Santa Clara County, California, they’re going to be using their funds to expand the “Rethink Your Drink” campaign to encourage kids to drink more water and milk and fewer high-calorie sodas and fruit drinks.

But let’s also remember that while kids eat plenty of meals and snacks in their homes and in their neighborhoods, with 31 million kids participating in the federal school lunch program, many of our kids are getting up to half their daily calories right at school.


And that’s the second place where all of you can really make a difference.

Through “Let’s Move!” we’re working to get healthier food into those school breakfasts and lunch programs and into vending machines at schools.

And we’ve found that the best way to do that is through the Healthier US Schools Challenge. Now, this program recognizes schools that are making the health of our children a central part of their mission, and it’s spurring schools all across the country to raise their standards, and teach kids healthy habits that will last a lifetime.

And as an additional incentive, when schools do succeed, they’ll get a cash reward. And we’ll also be holding a reception at the White House for representatives of the award-winning schools, so hopefully that will make people want to get involved. (Laughter.) They can come to my house! (Laughter and applause.)

Now, we know this program is already having an impact. We’ve seen it in schools like Burnside Elementary in Columbia, South Carolina. They’ve built a partnership with nearby Fort Jackson Army Base to pair students with soldiers for a healthy lunch and to discuss the importance of nutrition. They’ve also started a dance team to help kids stay active in ways that are easy and fun.

I had the pleasure of visiting another school right here in Anacostia -- River Terrace Elementary School -- where they have what they call a “Jammin’ Minute,” where every morning the kids and students, the teachers as well, they get moving and it helps them stay active and fit.

Together at that school, they’ve also planted a garden where they grow their own fruits and vegetables right on the school grounds. And I’m proud to say that River Terrace is the first school in Washington, D.C., to be named a Healthier US School. So we’re very proud of them. (Applause.)


So we need all of you to help promote this program in your communities. Encourage your local schools to apply for this challenge. Ask them what you can do to help. Maybe that means convincing local chefs in your community to participate in our Chefs Move to Schools program, where chefs volunteer in schools across the country, teaching schools new techniques and recipes for healthier meals. Maybe it’s raising money for a new salad bar or new kitchen equipment in the cafeteria. Or maybe it means rounding up volunteers to help kids plant a garden. We need your help in so many ways.

Another effort to get better food into our schools that needs your support is passing the child nutrition legislation that’s before Congress right now. (Applause.)

Now, just so you all know, this is legislation that makes critical investments to help us provide more children with better-quality school meals. It’s supported by Democrats and Republicans who agree that here in America, no child should start school hungry each day. They agree that no child should go without the basic nutrition they need to learn and to grow.

This bill has already passed the Senate, and I hope that the House of Representatives will act by the end of this month so we can get this bill signed into law. That’s something we can do.(Applause.)

But in the end, we all know that our childhood obesity crisis will not be solved by a bill in Washington, or even by the best programs in our communities, because, ultimately, the most important decisions about what our kids eat, and how much they exercise, are made at home.

The reality is that we all need to start making some changes to how our families eat. Now, everyone loves a good Sunday dinner. (Laughter.) Me included. (Laughter.) And there’s nothing wrong with that. The problem is when we eat Sunday dinner Monday through Saturday. (Laughter.) The problem is when things get out of balance, when portion sizes get out of control, when dessert is practically a food group -- (laughter) -- or kids are drinking sodas with every meal, or having snacks every couple of hours.


So this doesn’t mean going cold turkey and saying goodbye to the foods we love and that mean so much to our families. Instead, it’s about common sense and moderation. It means thinking hard about the foods we buy and how we prepare them and how much of them we eat.

And through “Let’s Move!” we’re working to provide families with better information to make those decisions easier.

It means getting our kids screened for obesity and asking our doctors for advice on how to prevent and address the issue.

It means making a conscious decision to incorporate physical activity into our daily lives. That could mean taking longer walks, spending more time as a family in the park. Maybe it’s just turning on the radio and dancing in the middle of the living room until you break a sweat. (Laughter.) Doesn’t have to take that much.

And I know it won’t always be easy, because this kind of stuff never is, for anyone. It’s going to take discipline and commitment and continuous hard work from families and communities across this country. But I think all of the folks in this room know a little bit of something about hard work and commitment and discipline. And tackling big challenge is nothing new to the CBC.

And being here today, I am reminded of a quote by Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman elected to Congress -- we all know that -- and she was one of the founders of the CBC. (Laughter.) She said -- and this is her quote -- “I don’t measure America by its achievement but by its potential.”


And all of you are here because you believe in that potential. Some of you have been fighting for that potential longer than I’ve been breathing. You remember sitting at those lunch counters and marching in those streets. You remember raising your voices for justice and equality. So you are all very well aware of what it takes to help make the promise of America real for every single one of our children.

And today, it’s up to all of us to build on that legacy, because you didn’t fight so hard for so long for a future where the greatest threat to our children is their own health.

You didn’t take all those risks and make all those sacrifices only to reach a day when our children’s prospects would be dimmer than our own. You all fought so that our children and grandchildren would have opportunities that you never even imagined.

And in the end, that’s what we’re fighting for today. And that’s why we need you all once again. We’re going to need you to add your energy and your passion to this cause. We need you to go back home and start the conversation, to roll up your sleeves and get more people involved. We need you to once again raise your voices on behalf of our children.

And the beauty of this issue is that this is with our control. We can do this if we all work together. If we continue to work together as we’ve done, then I am confident that together we can give our children the bright future that they deserve.

Thank you all for giving me the time. (Applause.) Thank you all for your prayers, for your hard work, for your intelligence. And I look forward to working with every single one of you in the months and years to come. Thank you all so much. (Applause.) ####