Michelle Obama, First lady of the U.S.
Michelle Obama, First lady of the U.S.

First lady Michelle Obama has been to fresh produce consumption what Laura Bush was to reading and Hillary Clinton was to reforming health care.

Obama's advocacy of healthy eating and exercise — highlighted by her Let’s Move anti-obesity initiative — has elevated her status among industry leaders. She is arguably the most influential unelected public policy advocate for the fruit and vegetable industry.

“The first lady’s involvement in reducing childhood obesity has given healthy eating — and fruits and vegetables — a platform that I’ve never seen before in my 30 years of participating in food/nutrition issues,” said Elizabeth Pivonka, president and chief executive officer of the Produce for Better Health Foundation, Hockessin, Del.

“Her involvement has brought disparate groups together to work on a common goal. Without her, it likely wouldn’t have happened.”

One way to measure the first lady's influence on the industry is to count her appearance in the pages of The Packer. Since 2009, Michelle Obama has been mentioned in nearly 100 stories in The Packer. By way of contrast, Laura Bush was mentioned just five times in her eight years as first lady.

President Obama took office in January 2009, and the first lady didn’t wait long to show an interest in fresh produce.

Michelle Obama, 47, grabbed headlines when she broke ground on the White House vegetable garden in late March 2009. In April 2009, she brought a class of fifth graders to the garden to tout the benefits of eating more fruits and vegetables, especially locally grown produce.

In February 2010, the first lady kicked off the “Let’s Move” campaign to combat childhood obesity. Officials from three leading foodservice providers stood on stage with the first lady and announced their commitment to doubling the amount of produce offered in school meals over the next decade.

In March 2010, Michelle Obama helped announced the Obama administration’s Healthy Food Financing Initiative, which seeks to eliminate food deserts — areas more than a mile from a supermarket — in the U.S. within seven years.

In November 2010, a campaign to put a salad bar in every school across the country received Michelle Obama’s backing. She kicked off the initiative during a visit to Riverside Elementary School in Miami, recipient of the first salad bar under a new public-private partnership.

On June 2, Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack took the wraps off the federal government’s new food icon, MyPlate. The new icon features half the plate for fruit and vegetables and has become a touchstone for Produce for Better Health promotions.

In September, Michelle Obama joined Darden Restaurants and Partnership for a Healthier America to announce a commitment by Darden, the world’s largest full-service restaurant company, that fruits or vegetables will become the default side option on kids’ menus.

On the Let’s Move website, Obama explains what drives her to advance the issue of healthy eating and kids.

“In the end, as first lady, this isn’t just a policy issue for me. This is a passion. This is my mission. I am determined to work with folks across this country to change the way a generation of kids thinks about food and nutrition.”