First Lady Michelle Obama may have done for the produce business what it has not been able to do for itself: coin a really compelling slogan.

'Just eat it:' Michelle Obama pushes produce

Larry Waterfield

At a health fair for kids on the White House lawn she told them not to complain about eating fresh produce.

“Don’t whine, just eat it,” she told them.  One can imagine a poster of a kid facing a cornucopia of produce with the slogan, “Just Eat it!”

Of course she joins generations of moms who have said some variation of that: “Shut up and eat your veggies.”

It’s great advice. We can argue about whether it works.

The Packer, in an editorial, called Michelle Obama’s efforts “a force for good.”

She’s pushed for more fresh produce and better nutrition in schools, and planted a home garden. 

She has even named a White House chef, Sam Kass, 29, who is also described as a “food policy wonk” who sits in on health and nutrition strategy meetings and pushes for a better diet.

She joins Barbara Bush, first lady when George H.W. Bush was president, in championing produce. Mrs. Bush famously backed fresh produce when her husband complained he didn’t like broccoli.

The industry responded by sending the White House a truckload, which Mrs. Bush graciously accepted, with plenty of publicity.

Hillary Clinton, as first lady, famously said, “I’m not sittin’ around baking cookies.”

And she didn’t, but she did have some foodie events at the White House — I remember attending one.

She also tried unsuccessfully to reform the entire U.S. health system — and held secret meetings to do it. That created a firestorm of opposition and a backlash against a federal takeover of health care.

President Obama may be on the verge of doing what Hillary Clinton could not do. The House of Representatives passed the massive health care reform bill by a razor-thin majority of 220 to 215. 

That’s a scary vote because something so big with so many changes ought to have broad support from both parties. The founding fathers believed this. Thomas Jefferson warned against making big changes without wide support.

(This column pointed out months ago that the president might have the votes to push through a bill without any support from Republicans.)

The country, including business, is split on the reforms. The AARP, representing retirees, supports it. The American Medical Association endorsed it. But the National Federation of Independent Business opposes it because of the employer mandate to provide health insurance or face big taxes and penalties. In addition, the bill will let the government decide just what kinds of insurance can be offered.

The Senate will have its own bill, and the two will have to be reconciled. The Senate is more cautious, so the final word has not been spoken on health care reform.

Is there anything in the 2,000 page House bill for the fresh produce industry? Maybe, maybe not.

That’s because there is a whole section — Division C, Title III, on “Prevention and Wellness” — that calls for spending $37 billion over 10 years. But there is nothing specific.

Instead, a series of permanent “task forces” will be created to develop a strategy and tactics for “prevention and wellness.”

A Prevention and Wellness Trust will dispense the billions of dollars, based on the recommendations of the task forces. Fully $350 million will be spent just to fund these task forces.  They will issue grants to groups and organizations to promote prevention and wellness.

The bill also establishes “health empowerment zones” to assist groups with health disparities — higher disease rates.

For example, there is an existing program to encourage Native Americans to eat more fresh produce to combat obesity and diabetes.

Theoretically, these new funds could be used to get more fresh produce into underserved inner cities and rural areas.

The Task Force on Community Prevention and Wellness Services will get $17 billion over 10 years to promote better health and prevent diseases.

It would seem logical that some of that money ought to be used to promote a better diet, with more consumption of fresh produce and more access to fresh foods.

All this money and effort will be controlled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, with ultimate authority from the Secretary of Health and Human Services.

For proponents of big government the House health bill is a dream come true, with huge new sub-agencies, committees, task forces, programs, mandates, taxes, fees, penalties that will impact every person and will cost $1 trillion.

For champions of smaller or more local government, it is a nightmare — a bureaucratic monster that will micromanage every aspect of health care for doctors, hospitals, patients, employers.

In the meantime, the “task force” ought to take a long look at Michelle Obama’s formulation for better health.

“Don’t whine about the produce. Just eat it.”


You've read his opinion — now what's yours? Leave a comment and tell us what you think about health care reform and promoting healthful eating.