Michelle Obama’s Well-Earned Victory Lap on Nutrition

As the first lady celebrates the year anniversary of her anti-obesity campaign, and keeps pressure on industry.

By Kai Wright Feb 09, 2011

First Lady Michelle Obama is taking a victory lap today for the one-year anniversary of her widely celebrated childhood obesity initiative. She’s in Alpharetta, Ga., talking to two of the South’s biggest mega-churches about how parents and faith leaders can join the effort. From the initiative’s start, Obama has included a strong dose of this kind of Bushian 1,000-points-of-light campaigning. But by leading with the worthy point that obesity is indeed something individual families and community leaders can change, she’s taken control of the personal responsibility narrative that so often disrupts public health conversations–all while pushing for structural reforms that make it possible for individuals to make healthy choices. 

Those reforms include the $4.5 billion child nutrition bill Congress passed last year, and that Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign spearheaded. That legislation covered a lot of ground, from authorizing the USDA to create nutrition standards for school foods (including vending machines) to expanding eligibility for low-income students to get food assistance. (Though, notably, the Senate cynically forced a food stamp cut in part to pay for the bill.)

Equally important, the first lady has been working hard to draw big business into her campaign, and has done so with far more success than her husband has found in similar efforts. The campaign hasn’t created new regulations–unfortunately–but it has nonetheless won significant voluntary concessions from food manufacturers and retailers.  

Among other meaningful, if incremental victories, industry is donating 6,000 salad bars to low-income schools, food service providers for schools have agreed to double the fruits and vegetables they offer, and soda cans are getting more clear calorie counts. Her team is reportedly working on getting the restaurant lobby to support new standards for portions and for nutrition in kids’ meals, and she helped wedge into the health care law a requirement that restaurants print nutrition information on their menus. Most controversially, she recently championed Wal-Mart’s plan to cut prices on healthier foods. Critics say Wal-Mart is just using her name to help it win support for expanding into urban communities; last I checked the company was doing pretty well on dominating low-income communities all on its own.

Importantly, Obama has entered her negotiations with the food industry from a place of strength, rather than weakness (again, her husband should be taking notes). Shortly after the campaign’s launch, she strode into the Grocery Manufacturers Association and told them it’s time to "entirely rethink the products that you’re offering, the information that you provide about these products and how you market those products to our children." After working with food manufacturers on front-of-the-package nutrition disclosure, she refused to endorse the plan they announced when it failed to meet Institute of Medicine standards, according to the New York Times. 

As a result, she is gradually but seriously reshaping both the public conversation about food and the actual food choices low-income and communities of color get. The conversation part isn’t trivial. We’ve never had real, mainstream debate in America about the responsibility the food industry has for its products’ impact on our health. Having the first lady spend a year hammering home that idea, including in the faces of food industry players, is a huge step. She deservers her victory lap.