Michelle Obama highlights familiar tools in the battle against obesity

(This is cross-posted from my Examiner.com site. But in this one, photo credit goes to moi.)

Michelle Obama announces Let's Move - cropped

On Tuesday, sixth grader Tammy Nguyen brought down the White House with her thoughts on produce. Leading up to a much-anticipated announcement in the State Dining Room, Nguyen described how she helped grow a rainbow of vegetables in a kitchen garden on the “first lawn.” “My friends and I have learned a lot about change, about eating healthy food, and making the right choices,” the former Bancroft Elementary School student explained. “My classmates and I plan to keep that color on the plate–and I don’t mean M&Ms,” she said.

Nguyen then introduced First Lady Michelle Obama, who summoned all hands on deck to bring the Bancroft students’ experience to every American child to promote better health. She outlined a detailed initiative, called Let’s Move, to curb the startling rate of childhood obesity (about one in three children is overweight or obese, she said), and save the nation’s kids from preventable diseases. Such an initiative can also create jobs and help fish the budget out of a deficit. That can only happen, Obama said, if many sectors work together and the action starts immediately.

“Instead of just talking bout this problem, instead of just worrying and wringing our hands about it, let’s do something about it,” said the first lady. “Let’s act…. let’s move.”

A new Task Force on Childhood Obesity will propel the initiative. Once on course, Let’s Move will include  $10 billion in funding for programs over 10 years in the Child Nutrition Act reauthorization, and $400 million to address “food deserts”–areas where healthy food is scarce. The initiative aims to banish food deserts in seven years and push out childhood obesity in a generation. Fresh, local food claims an important place in that effort.

Obama recruited former NFL star Tiki Barber—along with key players in the Obama administration, members of Congress, figures in sports and entertainment, and leaders in the business and medical communities—to join her at the announcement. But it was the mayor of a small town in Mississippi and a Milwaukee, Wisc. farmer who talked most convincingly about the power of wholesome food.

Mayor Chip Johnson, of Hernando, Miss., started a community garden on a shoestring, bringing in his neighbor’s tractor for some of the preparations. And one August, in spite of doubters, his town of about 10,000 set up a farmers market. “Everybody said ‘well, it was too late in the season’,” Johnson said. “But we said ‘no, let’s get going. Let’s do it now.’ So we started.” In the next two months, 23 vendors signed on.

If this is the model for success, D.C. is right on track. Novices started the Johns Hopkins Hospital Farmers Market last year with just a few months of planning. It experienced its share of rough spots, as did the FRESHFARM market at the White House. The latter started in September of 2009. It kindled some controversy, but also rallied an instant customer base and generous praise. It may even have played a role in increased interest in farm fresh food around the country.

Will Allen, who founded the urban farming initiative Growing Power, took the stage soon after Johnson. Allen stressed the importance of access to fresh produce, and taking part in growing it. D.C. programs like the Washington Youth Garden at the National Arboretum and the Neighborhood Farm Initiative are doing just that. It doesn’t matter if it’s at a market or on a farm. The key, Allen said, is having the kids experience real food–like Nguyen and her classmates did. “If they can touch it and feel it,” he said, “they’re bound to go the next step.”

For more:

Watch the full announcement

Read the Washington Post coverage in today’s paper and yesterday’s All We Can Eat blog

Check out the new Let’s Move website

View the new USDA Food Environment Atlas, which identifies “food deserts” that lack sources of fresh food

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