To celebrate the three-year anniversary of Let’s Move! -- her initiative to help raise a healthier generation of kids -- the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, visited Clinton, Mississippi as part of a two-day national tour. She and celebrity chef Rachael Ray hosted a cafeteria cookoff at the Eastside-Northside Elementary Schools to highlight the new healthier school lunches served across the nation as a result of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act signed into law by President Obama in 2010.
Mississippi is leading the way in reducing childhood obesity rates, with a 13% drop in obesity among elementary school students since 2005, as the result of state and federal changes. (The Mississippi Office of Healthy Schools was established in 2004, and the state legislature passed the Mississippi Healthy Students Act in 2007.) Ms. Obama chose the Clinton Public School District for a visit because it enlisted the community, business leaders, and students to make its schools healthier, using no additional funding. Through these changes, students now get more exercise and more nutritious meal choices.
First Lady Michelle Obama participates in media interview with Nikki Gladd with BlogHer, following a “Let’s Move!” initiative third anniversary tour event at Eastside and Northside Elementary Schools in Clinton, Mississippi, Feb. 27, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)
I spent 15 minutes with Ms. Obama talking about Let’s Move! and how she plans to keep the momentum going. We also talked about how parents can afford to buy healthy food, and how she depends on bloggers to get the word out. (And I got a little personal advice about how to help my own two boys make healthier eating choices, too!)
The title of the day’s event was “Change is Happening" -- and it is. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reports that obesity rates are falling in several U.S. locations -- not only in Mississippi, but also in Philadelphia, New York City, and California. According to the White House, "kids starting kindergarten today will only know healthy school meals." Lunch trays contain more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and less saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium. Kids drink low-fat or fat-free milk, and everything is served in proper portion sizes.
But Ms. Obama says it's too soon to celebrate. “We won’t really know where we are for really another generation. This is why the anniversary tours are so important, because it gives us a reason to talk about this issue for a good week or so and get the country focused on it again.”
When I asked her if Mississippi surprised her with its decline in obesity rates, the First Lady responded, “Absolutely! We were surprised, but very proud. I was here three years ago with then-Governor Haley Barbour, and we were in some of the schools that were struggling with these challenges. And then, he was making a commitment, a personal commitment to change that health trajectory. And he and the state legislature and the school board and the superintendents -- they all rallied around to make these very meaningful changes in what kids were eating in their schools. So they were ahead of the curve on the school lunch nutrition standard changes." And, she said, "the new federal legislation made it easier for them to do what they were already trying to do."
"What makes me encouraged," she said, "is that with these changes, with watching a community come together, you can change the results. You can turn a state that was once on the bottom, and they can move their way up."
This week, Ms. Obama announced the next step in her program, the Let's Move Active Schools initiative. Its goal is to get 50,000 U.S. schools to create "active environments" in which students will get 60 minutes of physical activity each day.
Ms. Obama firmly believes that physical activity and nutrition go hand in hand with better learning.
"Watching this school and watching these kids, it's not only that they're doing things from a health perspective, but you come in here and there's a vibrancy. You could see a brightness and intelligence in their eyes. The kids were outgoing. They were engaged. They were articulate. So it’s the whole package. It’s not an either/or choice. Nutrition, physical education -- it’s the tools that kids need to learn, which is ultimately what we’re trying to do, and you can see that here in this school."
Healthier food often costs more -- which could make school lunches more expensive for working families. I asked Ms. Obama what can be done to keep costs down. She told me that new federal nutrition legislation makes some new resources available to schools that apply for grants. (As of 2012, the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act now provides a six-cent reimbursement per lunch to districts that follow the new meal requirements. According to the White House, schools can seek assistance through several other programs, including the Healthier US Schools Challenge program, Salad Bars 2 Schools and the new Let’s Move Active Schools program.)
Ms. Obama says that parents can also make choices that are both healthy and budget-friendly.
"One of the messages that we’re trying to send to parents in particular is that there is a way to make the healthy choice the affordable choice. The thing we have to sort of do as moms in this country is reeducate ourselves about how do you plan a meal from week to week. You know, how to buy a pack of wings, how to make a meal stretch, how to buy a can of beans and make it work and make it taste good. Those are skills we have to kind of relearn. My grandmother wasn’t a wealthy woman and she worked, but she cooked for her family. It was rare in my grandmother’s house that you ate out. We have to relearn that kind of stuff."
And that's why she, in a joint effort with publishers Hearst, Conde Nast, Meredith, and the Food Network, is now using Pinterest to help share healthy recipes. "No longer do you have your mom and your grandma around the corner, because we’re all so transient. But we have each other via Internet, where we can share ideas and tips for cooking, and recipes that are fast and quick and tasty. And the Internet is becoming that community for us as parents -- not just moms but as parents -- to sort of figure this stuff out. Well, how do you feed your family; this is how much we earn; what do you buy?"
Mrs. Obama then brought up a subject very near to my heart: eating your meals together at home.
"Those are some of the best times. I mean, in our household, we still make it a point that whatever the president is doing, he stops it at 6:30 p.m., because that’s the time we sit down and eat. And, it’s not just about a meal -- we say a prayer, we check in, that’s when we find out what’s going on. We hear the long story about what happened at school and where are the challenges, and you get the clues from the kids."
Family time around the table can have physical benefits, too. Mrs. Obama pointed out that talking over a meal slows down your intake of food.
"When you’re talking and sharing, you’re not eating so fast. So the focus isn’t just gobble down your food -- it’s more of a process. And so you eat a little slower, you put your knife down, you drink some water, you have a conversation. Before you know it, you’re full when you’re really full as opposed to eating because you’re in front of the TV."
She encouraged all of us to keep talking to parents about what we do to encourage healthy eating habits in our children, and to support each other in making changes at home -- because that's where habits are made. Kids may now get healthy lunches at school, but if they come home to cabinets filled with junk food and parents on the couch, they are not going to change their overall behavior.
"We also need parents talking to each other and encouraging each other, and not placing blame or pointing fingers or passing judgments, but just figuring out what are those small, incremental steps; what are those sacrifices I, as a parent, am willing to make for my kid even if I’m not ready for it. Even if I’m not ready for it for myself, but I’m ready for it for my kid."
And we can help. She told me she relies "a lot on women bloggers for support and for getting the word out. Because the truth is you guys, your audience, your platform is really the way of the future in terms of how do we get information out to people where they’re paying attention and they interact with it. It’s one of the reasons why we believe it’s so important to sit down with folks like you -- you’re the heartbeat of what’s going on in families."
"So," Mrs. Obama told me, "we need to keep sharing that information and figuring out how we make it easier for ourselves to do what we ultimately know is best for our kids."
I know I'm encouraged to keep creating healthier habits in my own home, so that my kids learn to make healthy choices on their own. And I'll definitely share what I learn. I'm beginning with Ms. Obama's suggestion that I start them out young with vegetables and other healthy food, so that they’re accustomed early on and there’s no transition. How about you? Let's share our wisdom.
Thank you, Ms. Obama, for spending time with me to talk about your passion for our children’s health and wellness!
Kelly Ripa will host Ms. Obama's first Google hangout today, March 4, at 11:10 ET. Highlights of the cafeteria cookoff air on the Rachael Ray Show on March 11, 2013.
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