Question: What do arugula, a jumping-jack world record, and a giant cake made entirely of fruit have in common?
Answer: They’ve all been part of first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative to improve children’s health. Mrs. Obama has been celebrating its two-year anniversary this week with a four-state tour that wraps up on Saturday.
As the nation’s mover-, shaker-, and garden-grower-in-chief, Obama has helped start a change in the culture around eating and physical activity for the rising generation.
“We’ve started to see some data showing there’s a leveling off of the obesity problem, that it’s not [continuing to] get worse,” says Larry Soler, CEO of Partnership for a Healthier America, a nonprofit working with the private sector and Obama to tackle childhood obesity. “It’s going to take a generation to ultimately solve the problem, but we’ve had a great start.”
At least 8 out of 10 Americans have heard of Let’s Move, according to a recent survey by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation.
School cafeterias are feeling strong effects from the new level of attention to childhood nutrition.
In Dallas Friday morning, Obama helped judge a chefs’ competition in which three teams raced to make a delicious, healthy lunch in 30 minutes.
The event highlighted the Chefs Move to Schools program, the part of Let’s Move that brings chefs, teachers, parents, and school-nutrition professionals together to create school gardens, salad bars, and educational demonstrations for kids. More than 3,350 schools have signed up so far.
Obama cheered the students for Dallas’s distinction of having the most schools – 78 – earning the Gold Award in the HealthierUS Schools Challenge, which sets high standards for both school nutrition and physical activity. Nationwide, more than 1,500 schools so far have participated in the challenge.
After tasting the teams’ creations – a whole-wheat taco; an arugula, carrot, and avocado salad; and homemade applesauce – Obama and the other chefs declared all the teams winners, according to a newspaper pool report.
Other points of progress in children’s nutrition that her campaign has promoted:
Congress passed the Healthier, Hunger-Free Kids Act in December 2010. The USDA released new school meal regulations this January to include more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and to reduce sodium, saturated fat, and trans fats. These were the first significant changes to school meals in 15 years. More than 2,000 child-care groups and professionals have said they’ll implement new standards for nutrition, physical activity, and limited screen time for young children. Darden, the company that owns restaurants such as Olive Garden and Red Lobster, will now offer a fruit or vegetable and low-fat milk with every children’s meal. Wal-Mart is expanding access to healthy food choices in neighborhoods where they’ve been hard to find.
“Seeing the new nutrition standards come to life for school meals is so important, [and] a lot of nutrition professionals were inspired by [Obama] to work toward these standards even before they were mandatory,” says Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association in National Harbor, Md.
Obama’s campaign has pushed another major component to reducing obesity: exercise.
“The first lady’s efforts have been the most visible” efforts to get more people exercising, highlighting “practical things that average families can do around the home to get themselves burning calories,” says Robert Blendon, a professor of public health at Harvard University.
In Des Moines, Iowa, on Thursday for the anniversary celebration, Obama bounced and spun her way through the “Interlude Dance” in a giant arena. The dance was invented by University of Northern Iowa students but has spread around the world through social media, the Des Moines Register reports.
“[G]etting healthy is about having fun,” Obama told the students in Des Moines. “And while we’re out there eating our good food and having a good time, it’s important to know that we’re not just making our bodies stronger, but we are making our minds sharper, too.”
Her tour also included a stop in Arkansas Thursday, where she announced improvements in military meals, and on Friday, a WebMD Town Hall event and then dinner with a family in Orlando, Fla.
In a time of so much partisan gridlock in Washington, reducing obesity “has been a bipartisan issue,” says Mr. Soler of Partnership for a Healthier America. And even beyond the Obamas’ time in the White House, Obama has said she’ll stick with her focus on the issue. “We’re going to solve it by coming together,” Soler says.