(UPDATED COVERAGE, Feb. 11) The first ladyâs Letâs Move campaign to combat childhood obesity is challenging stakeholders across the food business and beyond, and could mean some powerful promotion for produce if all works according to plan.
One quickly-approaching priority of the campaign is reauthorizing the Child Nutrition Act with an extra $10 billion for healthier food, a first for the government if it passes. The investment is meant to put healthier foods in school cafeterias, as well as allow for more students to participate in the program.
âThe USDA is prepared to move and move aggressively,â said Tom Vilsack, agriculture secretary, in a conference call immediately following the launch. âWe need to be replacing sugar with more fruit and vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy.â
President Obama asked for the extra $1 billion per year for 10 years in his fiscal year 2011 budget request, which he proposed Feb. 1.
On Feb. 9, the day Letâs Move launched, the president also signed an executive order that created the Task Force on Childhood Obesity, another first. Members of the task force include Michelle Obama, Vilsack, Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of health and human services; Arne Duncan, secretary of education, and other agencies.
The task force is charged with reviewing current programs and policies that relate to child nutrition and physical activity and developing an action plan within 90 days.
âSo we think that this has enormous promise in improving the health of our children, in giving support to parents to make the kinds of healthy choices that oftentimes are very difficult in this kind of environment,â Barack Obama said just before signing the order.
In addition to its work in schools, campaign proponents are looking to improve access to healthy, affordable foods by working to eliminate food deserts â areas like inner cities that donât have easy access to food retailers. The Healthy Food Financing Initiative was part of the presidentâs 2011 budget, and is proposed to invest $400 million per year to provide loans for supermarkets to develop in underserved areas like inner cities.
âWith regard to schools, fruits and vegetables are really front and center when it comes to improving nutrition,â said Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition for Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association. âWith regard to food desserts, itâs also about improving access to fresh fruits and vegetables.â
The USDAâs Food Environment Atlas, which maps healthy food environments at the local level across the country, and identifies the existence of food deserts, high incidences of diabetes and other conditions, will be available to parents, educators, government and businesses.
Within those grocery stores, and on grocery shelves around the nation, the campaign calls for the Food and Drug Administration, retailers and manufacturers to work on front-of-package nutrition labeling on by the end of the year.
The USDA is also planning another revamp of the food pyramid. The 2.0 version of the MyPyramid.gov Web site is supposed to offer more tools to help consumers put dietary guidelines into practice.
The presidentâs proposed budget also asks for an additional $5 million for the USDAâs Farmers Market Promotion Program, which also has a home in the Letâs Move campaign.
Beyond these initiatives, Letâs Move is also working with schools, mayors, associations and businesses on tactics to increase physical activity in children and to more closely monitor their physical fitness. Several mayors who have been recognized for work in bringing more parks, sidewalks, soccer fields, etc., to their cities were in attendance at the launch of the campaign Feb. 9, along with Vilsack, Sebelius, Duncan and other secretaries, Regina Benjamin, the surgeon general; media and sports entertainers; Dawn Sweeney, president and chief executive officer of the National Restaurant Association, and representatives from school foodservice operators.
More associations and businesses are looking forward to working with the campaign, including United Fresh and the Produce for Better Health Foundation.
âResearchers have shown us that if we donât solve this crisis, this could be the first generation of people to have a shorter lifespan than their parents,â Sebelius said in the conference call.
Sebelius said about one-third of American children are overweight or obese, and that health care costs associated with it $150 billion a year.
Michelle Obama is committed to being the spokeswoman for the campaign, and has already been speaking to consumer media outlets to garner awareness and support. One of her primary goals is to make it easier for parents to find and understand nutrition information, and to understand their kids. She uses a personal story about her family doctor warning her that her childrenâs weight was starting to get off balance to relate to these parents.
One of the things the first lady did to get her daughtersâ weight back in balance was cut out junk food and add a few more vegetables to the dinner table, she told reporters.