Michelle Obama: Health Care Reform Won't Be Easy

First lady on personal responsibility, educating kids, and her favorite food.

June 19, 2009, 1:25 PM

June 23, 2009 — -- As the debate over health care reform escalates on Capitol Hill and in the White House, first lady Michelle Obama told "Good Morning America" in an exclusive interview that "no system is going to be perfect" and "it's not going to be easy."

The argument between Republicans and Democrats centers around the Obama administration's proposal for a government-sponsored health insurance plan, or "public option," that would compete with private insurance.

Despite the contention over the merits of the plan and as how it would be funded, the first lady told "GMA" she thinks success is possible now because "more and more people are ready for this kind of reform."

"The country has moved to another point in time," she said. "It's not going to be easy, but you have more people who are ready to try to figure it out. And hopefully that will ultimately make the difference this time around. "

The first lady acknowledged that her involvement in promoting nutrition, wellness and prevention "is to me one of the true keys of changing the health paradigm in this country."

The first lady sat down with "Good Morning America" co-anchor Robin Roberts in the grandchildren's garden in the White House South Lawn. The stepping stones into the garden have handprints of former presidents' grandchildren, beginning with Lyndon Johnson. Young people are at the center of the first lady's focus on nutrition, one that begins in her own home.

"We try to do more meals as a family," she said. "Just sitting together and having dinner has made a huge difference in how we eat and enjoy food."

And the old adage about eating your veggies is alive and well in the White House.

"Sasha likes peas and Malia is a pretty big broccoli fan," she said.

The first lady said she and her husband try to set a good example when it comes to diet and exercise, but pointed out that they are fortunate to have the resources to make it a priority.

"The truth is, people are busy and they're stressed and they're tired," she said. "That I know. And far be it from me to be a part of adding any more stress to anyone's lives because 'Michelle Obama did it; that means I have to do it.' I have a lot of help. I've got a mother here, I've got resources. I would be remiss in not acknowledging that. But I would also urge people to think about the small things that they can do within their control."

She added that her passion for children's health stems from her personal experiences as a working mother.

"Probably like most moms, working mothers, working parents, there is a period when you struggle to figure out with a busy schedule, how do you feed your kids and make sure that they are eating healthy?" she said.

Health Care at Home: 'Government Can't Do It All'

She recalled a time when the Obama family was eating take-out and "a lot of easy, fast foods…I saw it starting to take a toll on my kids' health."

The family's pediatrician suggested they change Malia and Sasha's eating habits, and during the campaign she said they began eliminating processed food and adding fruits and vegetables to their diet, and to cook more and eat out less.

"I feel more energized," she said. "I feel more invigorated when I'm following a healthy routine. And if I feel that way, I can only imagine how my kids feel. So you know, this is something that we can take on in this country."

Expressing concern about the high childhood obesity rates in the African-American and Latino communities, the first lady said those trends lead to diabetes and other chronic illnesses "that we will be paying for as a nation."

Obama said she was "hesitant to use the word crisis" when it comes to childhood obesity, but said that "we have to turn the page" and embrace healthier lifestyles.

"I don't think we have to call it a crisis to make change. It is what it is," she said. "You can look in your own neighborhoods, in your own families, in your own lives and see the truth of that. So we don't need someone to label it to know that we can fix it."

"Government can't do it all," she said, emphasizing the big impact of "little, incremental changes" like walking more and limiting soda.

"Those things will eliminate obesity and cut down on costs. I mean, we're spending about $120 billion additional a year on our health care system as a result of these sort of chronic illnesses that you see that are connected to obesity. We already know that."

Obama said her focus was on "talking with young people before these habits are ingrained about what it means to grow your own food, what it means to eat something that's grown locally, because what I found was that kids are very simple. They eat what tastes good and if a carrot tastes good, they'll eat it. And what we've found is that freshly grown food is -- it just tastes better. "

First Lady's Favorite Food: French Fries

Students from the Bancroft School in Washington, D.C., participating in a program with the White House Kitchen Garden have "learned so much about where food is grown," Obama said. "They take this information back. They educate their parents. They start asking for changes in their own diets."

The first lady said that while knowledge is crucial, it doesn't solve the problem that fresh fruits and vegetables aren't readily accessible or affordable in many communities. The administration would be focusing on improving the nutritional value of government-provided meals for children, she said.

"Through the lunch programs, more and more kids, particularly in this economy, are getting breakfast and lunch at school. And we need to do a better job of making sure that those meals are as healthy as they can be. "

Outside of schools, she said, people are replicating the 1,100-square-foot garden on the South Lawn, which she said cost less than $200 to plant.

"There are thousands and thousands of community gardens that are being planted in urban environments and in rural communities all over this country," she said. "What we've tried to demonstrate is that it's not easy, but it's not impossible, and it's not economically out of reach… Now I have gardeners and people who help take care of it, but there are also people who are coming together around their neighborhoods to do what we're doing here at the White House."

And even the first family indulges in guilty culinary pleasures from time to time. The first lady said she can relate to her husband's penchant for Five Guys Burgers and Fries.

"I love french fries: my favorite food," she said. "That's part of what we try to teach our kids. It's not about never, ever. There are some people who make that choice. We're not one of those. I love food. It's really about balance and choices."

"My hope is that if I play a role in sort of ringing the bell of prevention and wellness and exercise, if that changes somebody's life or it sets a new tone for the next generation, I think that can be helpful."