"Let's Move:" Michelle Obama's Anti-Obesity Program Looks Promising

Despite her ill-advised anecdotes about her daughters' weight, the anti-childhood obesity program Michelle Obama will launch today seems pretty reasonable. Of course, the National Review disagrees.

The program, called "Let's Move," seems less about fat-shaming than about getting kids to exercise and eat vegetables. According to UPI.com, Michelle Obama outlined four goals, which we evaluate below.

"Increasing the number of healthy schools"

The HealthierUS School Challenge already gives awards (though, it appears, no extra money) to schools that serve healthy lunches and give kids opportunities for exercise. Obama's plan would build on this by setting aside $25 million for school kitchens to remodel in order to serve healthier meals, and $10 billion over 10 years to serve kids free and reduced-price lunches and get healthier foods into schools. Obama says, "There is no reason why we can't have water, healthy juice drinks in vending machines, granola bars, trail mix, whole-grain sandwiches" — and indeed, this part of her plan seems smart for kids' bodies and their minds. She points out that, at schools "that have made the changes, they will tell you having recess and gym helps settle kids down so they actually can learn." The only question is whether the extra money will be enough to supplement the very tiny increase in the 2011 budget's allotment for school lunches — Obama's plan may not mean much if the administration won't back it up.

"Raising the level of children's regular physical activity"

It's hard to argue with this one, although it's not entirely clear how Michelle Obama will implement it. Encouraging PE in schools could be a start, although those of us who were hopeless at sports might like to see kids given some non-competitive options (Obama says she wants her kids "to compete and to win and to run and to sweat," but you can do the last two without the first). And truly encouraging all Americans' physical activity would require creating safe, walkable communities, something "Let's Move" doesn't appear to include. Still, it's a start.

"Improving accessibility and affordability of food"

This is perhaps the best of Obama's goals, acknowledging as it does the systemic reasons why some Americans have healthier diets than others. She proposes $400 million in incentives to get grocery stores into "food deserts" and fresh food into smaller stores. Congress will need to approve the measure — indeed, many of the monetary aspects of Obama's plan require Congressional approval — but if they do, the incentives could help those who currently don't have access to healthy foods.

"Empowering consumers to make better choices"

Michelle Obama's fourth goal is the broadest, and potentially the most concerning. It might include better food labeling, which would be a smart idea. Obama's recent public service announcement on NBC, in which she promotes exercise, may be part of this goal as well. But she's also enlisted the American Academy of Pediatrics to measure every child's BMI at every checkup, which is somewhat troubling. As many critics noted when Obama discussed her own daughters' supposedly worrisome BMIs, the metric isn't a particularly good one for measuring overall health, and can fluctuate widely during childhood. Couldn't pediatricians use more holistic, reliable measures of kids' health and fitness? This part of the plan seems to be more about weight than health.

Of course, fat-shaming isn't the conservative National Review's problem with Obama's program. NR writer Julie Gunlock says,

Most children are smart enough to make good decisions for themselves when given guidance and attention from their parents. Considering the vast number of resources available to the Obama girls even before their move to the White House, it's clear that nothing had a greater impact on these young ladies' health than their mother's involvement. When Michelle Obama was advised by the doctor to pay attention to her children's food decisions, her reaction was that of a concerned parent ready to take responsibility, not a parent looking for a government program to step in.

Except a parent can't "step in" and make a grocery store where there isn't one — and a parent can't always pack a child a healthy lunch if he or she is working several jobs (with, if Republicans in Congress get their way, no health insurance). Michelle Obama's program could help break the cycle in which poor children are less healthy than richer ones and thus less likely to rise out of poverty. But in order to do so, it should focus on health and not size.

Michelle's Child-Obesity Challenge [Politico]
First Lady Begins Fight Against Childhood Obesity [AP, via Traverse City Record-Eagle]
Childhood Obesity, Jobs, On Obama's Plate [UPI.com]
Michelle Obama Aims To End Child Obesity In A Generation [USA Today]
Interview Excerpts: First Lady Talks Kids' Exercise, Eating [USA Today]
Federalizing Fat [National Review Online]
Physical Activity [The More You Know]