White House Lunch with Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama’s Food Fight: Five Outcomes

Michelle Obama’s food fight made its big debut under the Let’s Move! banner six years ago. The stated purpose — “solving the problem of childhood obesity within a generation” — has turned out to be more aspirational than literal. All the talk about childhood obesity gave way to a focus on healthy eating and food policy. Six years in, it’s plain that the effects of what the First Lady has done will be felt long after the Obamas have left the White House.

We offer five notable outcomes for your consideration.

My Plate Over the Pyramid. My PlateThe USDA food pyramid was tired long before it was retired to be replaced by My Plate. Michelle Obama was not the first person to find the 40-year-old food pyramid concept to be confusing and irrelevant to good nutrition. But she acted quickly and within a year of the Let’s Move! debut, the pyramid was history. In its place, we had the unmistakable clarity of My Plate. Half of it is fruits and vegetables. This move engendered little controversy. Nobody mourned the demise of the pyramid.

Movement in the Food Industry. Much to the chagrin of public health crusaders who reflexively distrust the food industry, some significant changes in the American food system came as a result of the First Lady’s willingness to engage and cajole the industry. Critics accused the First Lady of caving to pressure from big food. Citing concessions from the beverage industry, Politico notes she “was able to get companies to make changes that many say could never have happened without the First Lady’s star power.”

Better School Lunches. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was the flash point of Obama’s food fight. Passed in the lame duck session of Congress before Republicans took power in 2010, it brought some of the biggest changes to school nutrition since Ronald Reagan declared ketchup to be a vegetable. It started “an all-out war over school lunches” that still smolders now. But the changes it brought are still largely intact.

New Nutrition Facts (any day now). One of the most read bits of nutrition information is the Nutrition Facts panel that appears on virtually every packages food product in America. New standards emerging from the First Lady’s initiative are the first changes in over 20 years. For the first time ever, added sugars will be visible to consumers, something the sugar industry is decidedly unhappy about. But public health advocates are delighted. Other changes are intended to make the panel more clear and useful to consumers. Calories get top billing.

A Bit of Spin. Let’s Move! was supposed to be a childhood obesity campaign, but in reality it became a food policy initiative. Unfortunately, the childhood obesity spin made its way from Let’s Move! into cherry-picked statistics on childhood obesity. For a big Let’s Move! event in 2014, the administration plucked a spurious statistic about obesity in toddlers out of a CDC report. The result was a press release with an indefensible claim about a 43% drop in early childhood obesity. The spin has created a persistent impression that is out of sync with what the data actually say. It’s a remarkable illustration of Winston Churchill’s words: “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”

As important as food and nutrition are, they’re not adequate for explaining or solving the challenge of childhood obesity. But the complexity and ambiguity that comes with obesity doesn’t provide satisfactory sound bytes. So it’s not surprising that Lets Move! evolved to focus on food policy.

Judged as a food policy program, Let’s Move! has unquestionably had a tremendous impact.

Click here for a detailed analysis by Politico.

White House Lunch with Michelle Obama, photograph © USDA / flickr

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March 21, 2016

2 Responses to “Michelle Obama’s Food Fight: Five Outcomes”

  1. March 23, 2016 at 4:31 pm, Rosa Aspalter said:

    Dear Ted,
    thanks for that article! I appreciate the work done by Michelle Obama.

    As to your question regarding the plate:
    I think, the plate is better than many illustrations previously used, but still not clear enough.
    Fruits? Well! That’s some sort of food. That’s clear.
    Vegetables? Well, also foods! Clear, too!
    Grains? The same thing.
    But proteins?
    What is that exactly? Meat? Burgers? Ham and eggs? Proteins are in there, that’s true, but about about fats, cholesterol? What about lacking fibres? What about the fact, that only 20-30% of that stuff are proteins? If this plate wants to suggest to think automatically protein = meat or saucegges or eggs, it is terribly missleading and, in fact, dangerous.
    t What about the fact, that even vegetabels contain some proteins, some sorts of grains contain as much as 14-15% proteins? Not to speak of legumes….

    So, what is this mixture good for? Just irritating and confusing! Be keen enough and give things a name! If it is the wrong one, we can discuss it. If it is the right one, well! Everyone will benefit!

    Kind regards!

    • March 23, 2016 at 4:51 pm, Ted said:

      Thanks, Rosa, for such detailed insight.