First lady Michelle Obama speaks during an event to discuss her Let's Move! initiative to combat childhood obesity, at the Lenfest Police Athletic (PAL) Center, Wednesday, July 18, 2012, in Philadelphia (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
This article was produced in collaboration with the nonprofit Food & Environment Reporting Network, an investigative reporting nonprofit focusing on food, agriculture and environmental health.
In March 2010, Michelle Obama stood on a stage in Washington and leveled a challenge at the food industry’s biggest players. “We need you all to step it up,” she told a meeting of the Grocery Manufacturers Association. Just a month earlier, she’d launched the Let’s Move campaign, the Obama administration’s flagship anti-obesity program, which is aimed at reversing the childhood obesity epidemic by 2030.
The first lady hit talking points that would make any children’s health expert happy. She urged the manufacturers of products like Doritos, Froot Loops and SpaghettiOs to make them healthier, to cooperate with the government on new food labels, and to get serious about reining in junk food marketed to kids. “What does it mean when so many parents are finding that their best efforts are undermined by an avalanche of advertisements?” she asked. The speech was a thrilling display of Mrs. Obama’s mettle and a watershed moment, raising expectations among health advocates. Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, public health and food studies at New York University and a tough critic of Big Food, put it this way: “It was a knockout. An absolute knockout.”
That spring seemed to be a season of promise that the blight of childhood obesity—which is on track to make today’s kids the first generation of Americans to live shorter lives than their parents—might still be beaten back. Seedlings were pushing up through the soil in the White House kitchen garden, which was in its second season since the first lady had resurrected it; now she was using it as a focal point for a national conversation about food. A presidential task force was charting an ambitious action plan to meet the goals of Let’s Move. And at the forefront of it all was the enormously popular mother in chief, who had surprised and impressed many when she chose to make the contentious issue of childhood obesity a focus of her White House tenure.
But three and a half years since the ground was broken on the White House garden, many of those who’d had high hopes say the first lady has logged only modest successes. Experts credit Mrs. Obama for her instrumental role in reforming school lunches, limiting TV watching and increasing healthy food at childcare centers—and, perhaps most important, using her bully pulpit to bring issues of food and nutrition to national attention. But, they say, reversing the childhood obesity epidemic in a generation requires more of the bold action that Mrs. Obama hinted at in her address to the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
From that inspiring moment in March 2010, the administration’s strategy appears to have shifted. Or perhaps its resolve has eroded, for it remained mute during a bitter fight to limit junk-food marketing to kids. It has also forged controversial—some say compromising—partnerships with food manufacturers.
“Looking back on it, it’s enough to make you weep. So little has been able to be achieved,” said Nestle.
Observers put the blame less on a lack of goodwill than on the political realities of taking on the multibillion-dollar food industry, which has lots of lobbying money and friends in Congress and no qualms about fanning the fears of government overreach when it perceives a threat to its interests. “It’s a real example of the power corporations have over American government and American life,” Nestle said.