Person of the Week: Michelle Obama

The first lady wants fighting childhood obesity to be her legacy.

January 22, 2010, 10:57 AM

Jan. 22, 2010— -- Whether she's turning heads with her latest fashions, being mom in chief to her two young daughters, or even training a very playful puppy, by all measures, first lady Michelle Obama has had a busy first year in the White House.

"We've gotten a lot done," she told a group of print reporters last week, listing moments like her work with military families and her youth mentoring program, as being part of the year's accomplishments.

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But the issue she has become the most passionate about is ending childhood obesity.

"The statistics never fail to take my breath away," the first lady said Wednesday, while addressing the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington. "Right now, nearly one-third of children in America are overweight or obese -- one in three. And one-third of all children today will eventually suffer from diabetes -- in the African-American and Latino communities, it goes up to almost half."

Those statistics Obama refers to are the latest numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to a CDC study, in the last 30 years, obesity rates in teenagers have tripled. One in five American children has high cholesterol. And it is estimated that the U.S. will spend nearly $350 billion on obesity-related health problems by 2018.

"Obesity could now be an even greater threat to America's health than smoking," Obama said at the mayoral conference. "In fact, medical experts are predicting that this generation is on track to have a shorter lifespan than their parents."

So how does Michelle Obama plan to make those statistics a bad memory? By announcing a wide-ranging four-point initiative to combat childhood obesity.

"That includes increasing the number of 'healthy schools' where kids have access to nutritious food; providing more opportunities for kids to be physically active; ensuring that affordable healthy food is available in more communities; and giving parents the information they need to make good choices for themselves and their families," she told the mayors on Wednesday.

Access to a healthy lifestyle and diet has been an issue the first lady has championed since her first days in the White House. "My hope," she said in an interview with the New York Times, "is that through children, they will begin to educate their families and that will, in turn, begin to educate our communities."

Person of the Week: Michelle Obama

Inaugurating the White House kitchen garden was the first step in starting to get the public, especially children, talking about eating healthy food, she says.

Obama hosted the popular TV cooking competition "Iron Chef" at the White House, urging the famous chefs to use a distinct secret ingredient.

"Welcome to the White House. Your secret ingredient is... anything from the White House garden!"

Those chefs, including Mario Batali and Bobby Flay, managed to get vegetables into everything -- from ravioli to desserts -- including using carrots in beignets.

Obama has cooked with children in the White House kitchen and hula-hooped and jump-roped in the Rose Garden, to promote a fit and active lifestyle.

The first lady's policy director, Jocelyn Frye, said the East Wing has been focused on the issue from the day the Obamas moved into the White House. She explained that Michelle Obama's White House kitchen garden was part of a plan to lay the groundwork leading up to this initiative. Her staff saw the organic vegetable patch as an easy way to engage the public, particularly kids.

"This was an issue that was on our radar screen," Frye said. "We didn't just want to do the garden just to have a garden. I think it was really a vehicle for talking about healthy eating and focusing on children's health."

Obama is under no illusion, however, that it will be easy to change years of entrenched habits and economic realities.

"It wasn't that long ago that I was juggling a full-time job with the round-the-clock role of being a mom," she told reporters, following the mayoral conference Wednesday. "And there were plenty of times when, after a long day at work, when the fridge was empty and the kids were hungry, that I just ordered that pizza."

But now she says she wants to change that. "Until we've moved the ball on something -- that's the legacy I want," Obama told reporters. "I want to leave something behind that we can say, 'because of this time this person spent here, this thing has changed.' And my hope is that that's going to be in the area of childhood obesity."

"We don't need to wait for some new invention or discovery to make this happen. This doesn't require fancy tools or technologies. We have everything we need right now," Obama said. "The only question is whether we have the will."

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