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Published February 08, 2010, 12:00 AM

First lady takes aim at obesity

WASHINGTON — Three Cabinet secretaries and a bipartisan congressional delegation met with first lady Michelle Obama at the White House Feb. 2 to discuss her anti-obesity campaign and reauthorization of the child nutrition programs that Congress is scheduled to undertake this year.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — Three Cabinet secretaries and a bipartisan congressional delegation met with first lady Michelle Obama at the White House Feb. 2 to discuss her anti-obesity campaign and reauthorization of the child nutrition programs that Congress is scheduled to undertake this year.

Obama told the group that the childhood nutrition programs, which include the school meals program and the program for women, infants and children known as WIC, would be an opportunity to reduce obesity, adding, “But truly this is an issue that’s got to be ground up, and something that requires bipartisan engagement.”

The Obama administration has asked Congress to add $1 billion per year to the child nutrition program budget. The reauthorization of the child nutrition programs is expected to spark debate between those who favor using additional money to feed more children and those who think the money should be used to improve the quality of the food. It also is expected to pit food groups against each other, as the meat and dairy industries, for example, fight with the fruit and vegetable industry for a share of the federal nutrition budget.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is expected to speak on the administration’s priorities in child nutrition reauthorization Feb. 8 at the National Press Club, while the first lady is expected to announce her initiative Feb. 9.

Joining forces

After the event, Vilsack, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., House Education and Labor Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., and Senate Health, Education, Welfare and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, all pledged to work on a coordinated approach to fight obesity.

In a statement, Lincoln said, “As Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, I am working to improve our child nutrition programs by ensuring we provide nutritious food that promotes the development of our children. With nearly 350,000 Arkansas children enrolled in the National School Lunch Program alone, our child nutrition programs are the most effective tool that we have to combat childhood obesity. I look forward to working with the First Lady, the White House and my colleagues in Congress to put together a bill that will help our children lead healthier, more productive lives.”

Harkin said, “If we are to move to a true ‘wellness society’ and rein in skyrocketing health care costs, we must start with the health and well being of our youth. I welcome this dialogue on the subject and am hopeful that Congress and the Administration can work together to pass strong legislation to improve children’s health and fight childhood obesity.”

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., and Senate Health, Education, Welfare and Pensions ranking member Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., attended the event, but did not join the press briefing. Spokeswomen for Chambliss and Enzi said they had to return to Capitol Hill for meetings. An Enzi spokeswoman said the senator said it was a good first start on the issue.

It starts at home

Chambliss issued a statement in which he highlighted the role parents play in children’s diets.

“We need to call on parents first and foremost to take an active role in providing healthy foods at home and engaging in physical activity with their children every day,” Chambliss said. “While steps can and should be taken to improve the nutrition environment in schools, improve access to healthy foods, and engage health providers in the fight against obesity, nothing can replace the direct involvement of caregivers at home. I applaud Mrs. Obama for spearheading this initiative and look forward to working with her to combat this critical issue.”

Chambliss noted that rates of childhood obesity in the U.S. continue to steadily rise.

“More than 23 million American children — nearly one in every three — are overweight or obese. Obesity rates among children over the past 30 years more than doubled among children ages 2 to 5, quadrupled among children ages 6 to 11 and more than tripled among adolescents ages 12 to 19,” Chambliss said.

He added, “There is no doubt that schools play an important role in shaping nutrition habits of young children. School cafeterias, gymnasiums and playgrounds are important venues to teach children about healthy eating and exercise.”

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