February 15 2011
Last week, Michelle Obama marked the first anniversary of the Let's Move campaign by hosting a conference call during which the media was barred from asking questions. I'm not surprised - I can think of plenty of reasons not to want probing questions about this program's effectiveness.
Has the Let's Move campaign made a difference? No. In fact, it might even be making the problem worse by expanding the role of government and further distancing from the child-obesity problem the people who can really make a difference in a child's life - parents. Let's go over the accomplishments of the campaign over the last year:
Reducing the role of parents: The first lady worked tirelessly for passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which did little more than further federalize the school-lunch program and create processes for automatic enrollment - whether parents want their children to receive school-provided meals or not.
By doing this, the federal government is essentially creating a disincentive for parents to provide simple and healthy meals for their children and sending the message to poor parents that they are not a part of the solution. Why would a person take the time to feed their child breakfast before school or pack a lunch for them, if the government is willing to do it? This is precisely the wrong message to send the nation's poor, whose children make up the vast majority of obese children in this country. Study after study shows the real solution to childhood obesity is parental involvement, yet the government has chosen to further distance parents from their important role.
Lunch Money: The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act added $4.5 billion dollars to an already badly broken and wasteful (to the tune of nearly $1 billion) federal school-meal program. Now, $4.5 billion certainly sounds like a lot of money, and it is, but it breaks down to only six cents added to each school meal served. You don't have to be a lunch lady to know that six cents isn't going to amount to much change on the lunch line, and it certainly won't result in much improvement in the quality of food served.
And the number of meals served by schools is about to increase. Michelle Obama has long promoted the idea of full meal services at schools - breakfast, lunch and dinner. Her vision came closer to reality last month when USDA secretary Tom Vilsack announced the expansion of the school-dinner program from 13 states to all 50 states (mainly in urban areas to start with). Add to this the already well-established school-breakfast program, and we're leaving little for parents to do except tuck the little ones in at night.
Just-issued federal nutrition guidelines call for more non-starchy vegetables, leafy greens, low-fat milk and reduced-sodium snacks in school lunches - and the first lady's bill actually complicated matters for local school districts by requiring them to comply with even more burdensome federal guidelines. The bill gives the USDA authority to establish national nutrition standards for all food products sold on school grounds - not just on the lunch line. That means every food item - including the food sold in vending machines, school stores, and even student-run bake sales - is subject to federal regulations. So much for cutting red tape or empowering parents and local school districts.
Reading, Writing, and . . . Gardening? The first lady and White House chef and food activist Sam Kass are often seen in the White House garden with a gaggle of schoolchildren, planting, weeding, and harvesting produce. Foodie-in-chief Alice Waters has helped encourage the idea that school gardens are a key to reducing obesity: In Berkeley, Calif., Waters has created a series of gardens in public schools, in the hopes that pulling spinach out of the ground will make a child agree that it tastes good. Caitlin Flanagan's excellent expose in The Atlantic, "Cultivating Failure," examined Water's Edible Schoolyard project and found there isn't a shred of evidence (except one tiny study funded by Waters's own Chez Panisse Foundation) that these classroom gardens do much good for students. Yet school gardens are a major component of the Let's Move campaign and the USDA announced last year a new grant program to help schools start these student-run gardens.
Blaming big business: Big business has been hit with much of the blame for America's healthproblems. According to those promoting a nanny-state solution to obesity, grocery stores are at fault for stocking high-calorie items and food too high in sugar and salt. The first lady recently suggested to the National Restaurant Association that they begin serving smaller portions (apparently overlooking the availability of the take-home box - something that many parents use when kids fail to finish those gargantuan portions). Blaming food providers sends a message to the American public - it's not your fault. Personal responsibility and self-control do not factor into this obesity equation, only the depredations of big business. But don't worry, the government is here to help.
Michelle Obama likes to say her detractors simply don't understand the Let's Move campaign, explaining that "the core of this effort is really giving parents information and better choices." Are parents so ill-informed? Is there really a dearth of choices? Of course not, but promoting this idea eases the way to expand government's power, which may be this program's primary goal.
Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign can do more to encourage good parenting. Kids don't need salad bars and smaller portions and less salt and sugar. They need parents who will take the time to put a sandwich and an apple into a brown paper bag.