In the early 1940s, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt worked with chefs to prepare healthy, inexpensive White House meals as part of her campaign to promote responsible cooking during the Great Depression.
Seventy years later, First Lady Michelle Obama has customized Roosevelt’s concept to lead a White House nutrition- based crusade of her own: A national initiative called “Let’s Move!” designed to end childhood obesity through proper diet and exercise.
Obama, who is writing a book about the garden she planted on the South Lawn of the White House, is the architect of a remarkable 21st century effort to confront a legitimate health issue that many parents want to ignore. But the warning signs are everywhere.
During a recent trip to Detroit, while awaiting a table at a restaurant, I noticed four overweight Black children eating heaping helpings of fried foods while their parents doused their meals with salt and hot sauce. There were no salads or vegetables on the table. It was refreshing to see a Black family eating dinner together, but it was troubling to see exactly what they were eating.
Multiply that family by millions of other black folks who have spent years practicing unhealthy eating habits, and it’s no wonder that black America is experiencing a health crisis.
Every day, we’re putting our children at risk by allowing them to eat whatever they want, whenever they want – and it’s a detrimental cycle. Those smothered pork chops we’re serving up are smothering our kids.
Obama is working to combat what health experts are calling a national epidemic of obesity, particularly in children of color. This isn’t a new problem, but Obama is correctly treating the issue with a sense of urgency and talking to parents and educators about childhood obesity in communities across the country.
Black parents should be listening carefully to Obama and taking notes. Health experts say obesity puts African-American children at a greater risk for diabetes, high blood pressure and other serious medical conditions.
“Now, usually, when I talk to groups like this, I start by discussing the statistics: how the incidence of obesity has more than tripled in the last 30 years; how nearly one out of every three of our children is overweight or obese; and how small, personal choices like what you serve your kids at the dinner table, or how getting them away from the computer and getting them out into the fresh air can really make the world of difference on this issue,” Obama said at the National League of Cities Legislative Conference this week.
“But if we’re going to make any progress at all,” Obama said, “we must acknowledge that there is a problem, and then we have to do everything in our power to work together to fix it.”
Consider these statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:
• African-American women have the highest rates of being overweight or obese, compared to other groups in the U.S. About four out of five African-American women are overweight or obese.
• African Americans were 1.5 times as likely to be obese as Non- Hispanic Whites.
• African American women were 60 percent more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic White women.
• African-American children were 30 percent as likely to be overweight than non-Hispanic children.
In the past year, Obama has taken her campaign to schools and food manufacturers, urging them to serve healthier school lunches. This week, however, Obama broadened the pitch for her crusade and offered a compelling economic perspective: She urged mayors to help fight childhood obesity and stimulate the economy in the process.
In Philadelphia, Obama said, Mayor Michael Nutter is planning to support fresh food stores in the city. Nutter, she said, is using the healthy food concept to create more than 5,000 jobs.
“All of you here know this isn’t a new issue at all. You know childhood obesity is already affecting your communities, weighing down your budgets, hampering economic growth,” Obama said.
Yet “by investing in even one grocery store, you might be able to revitalize just one neighborhood,” the First Lady said. “By building more sidewalks (today), you can reduce health costs and budget strain tomorrow.”
“What many of you already understand is that a healthier community can lead to a healthier economy,” she added. “You don’t have to pass sweeping new ordinances on this issue. Sometimes it is very simple, common-sense ideas that can make a big difference.”
Last month, conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh took a swipe at the First Lady because she ordered ribs for dinner while she was on a weekend getaway. Limbaugh, who usually twists the facts to fit his own agenda, failed to mention that Mrs. Obama also ordered a salad with her meal. What’s worse is that Limbaugh questioned the First Lady’s physical fitness. It was rude and unacceptable. And when is the last time Limbaugh stepped on a scale?
Here’s the truth: Michelle Obama could have taken the easy way out and cruised through four years in the White House hosting White House receptions as the low profile wife of a sitting president. But she didn’t.
The First Lady accepted a visible leadership role from the East Wing, and she is shining a bright light on a health crisis that impacts young African- Americans disproportionately. As parents, we should take the issue of childhood obesity seriously.
We owe it to our children and to the generations of Black children to follow.