First lady's campaign prompts change

2013-02-27 17:50

Washington - Walmart stores are labelling some store-brand products to help shoppers spot healthier items. Millions of US schoolchildren are helping themselves to vegetables from salad bars in their lunchrooms, while kids' meals at Olive Garden and Red Lobster restaurants automatically come with a side of fruit or vegetables and a glass of low-fat milk.

The changes put in place by the food industry are in response to the campaign against childhood obesity that Michelle Obama began waging three years ago.

More changes are in store.

Influencing policy posed more of a challenge for President Barack Obama's wife, and some criticised it as unwanted government intrusion.

Still, nutrition advocates and others give her credit for using her clout to help bring a range of interests together.

They hope the increased awareness she has generated through speeches, her garden and her physical exploits will translate into further reductions in childhood obesity rates long after she leaves the White House.

About one-third of US children are overweight or obese, which puts them at increased risk for any number of life-threatening illnesses, including diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.

While there is evidence of modest declines in childhood obesity rates in some parts of the country, the changes are due largely to steps taken before the first lady launched "Let's Move" in February 2010.

With the programme entering its fourth year, Mrs Obama heads out on Wednesday on a two-day promotional tour with stops in Mississippi, Illinois and Missouri.

She has been talking up the programme on daytime and late-night TV shows, on the radio and in public service announcements on television with Sesame Street's Big Bird.

She also plans discussions next week on Google and Twitter.

"We're starting to see some shifts in the trend lines and the data where we're starting to show some improvement," she told SiriusXM host B Smith in an interview broadcast on Tuesday.

"We've been spending a lot of time educating and re-educating families and kids on how to eat, what to eat, how much exercise to get and how to do it in a way that doesn't completely disrupt someone's life."

Making a change

Larry Soler, president and chief executive of the Partnership for a Healthier America, said Mrs Obama has "been the leader in making the case for the time is now in childhood obesity and everyone has a role to play in overcoming the problem."

The nonpartisan, non-profit partnership was created as part of "Let's Move" to work with the private sector and to hold companies accountable for changes they promised to make.

Conservatives accused Mrs Obama of going too far and dictating what people should - and shouldn't - eat after she played a major behind-the-scenes role in the passage in 2010 of a child nutrition law that required schools to serve healthier food.

Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, the Republican Party's vice presidential nominee in 2008, once brought cookies to a school and called the first lady's efforts a "nanny state run amok”.

Other leaders in the effort, such as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have felt the backlash, too. Last fall, Bloomberg helped enact the nation's first rule barring restaurants, cafeterias and concession stands from selling soda and other high-calorie drinks in containers larger than 454g.

Despite the criticism, broad public support exists for some of the changes the first lady and the mayor are advocating, according to a recent Associated Press-NORC Centre for Public Affairs Research poll.

More than eight in 10 of those surveyed, 84%, support requiring more physical activity in schools, and 83% favour government providing people with nutritional guidelines and information about diet and exercise.

Seventy percent favour having restaurants put calorie counts on menus, and 75% consider overweight and obesity as serious problems in this country, according to the 21 November to 14 December survey by telephone of 1 011 adults.