Chocolate bunnies and jelly beans generally render the Easter holiday a high-calorie event. On the Monday afterward, First Lady Michelle Obama, leading a high-energy dance in front of a large crowd at the White House, wants to ensure those calories get burnt off.
Seeking to capitalize on the popularity of the White House Easter Egg roll, Mrs. Obama turned this year’s event into a fifth birthday party for her Let’s Move initiative, which she launched in 2010 as a way to combat childhood obesity.
Aside from the decidedly low-impact egg roll itself, the 35,000 expected attendees could spin on stationary bikes or Zumba off a few pounds on the South Lawn. The first lady danced while her husband, the President, won a round of kiddie tennis.
“Be a part of the movement. It’s fun!” extolled the first lady. “It’s a great way to get everybody moving.”
On its fifth anniversary, Let’s Move has survived criticism from Republicans, food companies, school lunch professionals, and – perhaps most visibly – schoolkids themselves, some of who registered their displeasure at new school lunch rules by posting photos of soggy scoops of vegetables on social media.
But amid the onslaught, signs of progress have emerged. Last year the Centers for Disease Control said the prevalence of obesity dropped 43% among young children – aged 2-4 – between 2004 and 2012.
Critics said that measurement cherry-picked the data for good news amid what otherwise remains a worrying trend toward overweight and obese kids. At 17%, the overall rate of childhood obesity remains more than three times higher than it was in 1974. That overall rate hasn’t changed since 2008, before Let’s Move began.
But experts say the drop in early childhood obesity is a promising sign since it suggests kids may be learning healthy habits earlier. And they assert an obesity rate that isn’t rising is a good sign.
How much that has to do with Let’s Move – if anything at all – remains unknown.
“Across the whole spectrum of kids what we’re seeing…is a slowing down and stabilization” of obesity rates, said Dr. Deb Galuska, the Associate Director of Science, Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity at the CDC.
“We don’t know the reason,” she said. “There’s been a big emphasis on obesity issues though a variety of channels.”
The first lady has been careful not to proclaim victory against obesity too loudly. But she has taken come credit for the small signs that kids are leading healthier lives.
“I just think we have seen a change in the culture,” she said on “Live with Kelly and Michael” Monday, one of several daytime talk show interviews she’s participated in to mark the Let’s Move anniversary.
“Five years ago people looked at me like I was crazy because they said it wasn’t an issue,” she said. “That childhood obesity wasn’t an issue in this country. And today we have seen changes, improvements in the school lunches. We’ve seen grocery store manufacturers putting healthy food there and keeping the prices low. Schools, classrooms are putting in salad bars. And kids are getting active during the day. It’s just been a real culture shift.”
Those improvements are likely to do little to quiet the critics of Let’s Move. They aren’t necessarily opposed to the program’s mission of reducing childhood obesity, which is a widely acknowledged epidemic that analysts have said could cost the country billions in increased medical costs and potentially create a generation whose lifespans are shorter than their parents.
Instead, opponents say the program enforces a nanny state mentality that touches families at a deeply personal level – asking parents to change daily routines and long-held ideas about food – in the hopes of slowing the decades-long increase in childhood obesity rates.
The program has become the largest and most visible element of Michelle Obama’s policy efforts, which also include supporting veterans and bolstering the place of women and girls in foreign countries. From its launch through late last year, the program was headed by the Obamas’ personal chef, Sam Kass, whose role at the White House went beyond just preparing the first family’s daily meals and into molding the Obamas as models of healthy living.
He installed a vegetable garden and bee hive on the White House South Lawn, emulating the local-eating trend that was also spreading to restaurants around the country. As the executive director of Let’s Move, he was credited with helping convince grocery stores to stock healthier kids foods. President Obama named him the first-ever Senior Policy Adviser for Nutrition – a title that reflected the heavy influence he wielded in Michelle Obama’s signature program.
In December, the newly married Kass announced he was stepping down to move closer to his wife, a cable news anchor based in New York. His replacement, Debra Eschmeyer, has deep roots in food policy as the co-founder of FoodCorps, an organization that works to get healthy ingredients to kids in low-income neighborhoods.
Galuska, the CDC scientist, said Let’s Move could yield results only if parallel obesity reduction efforts succeed.
“There’s a lot of things happening across many sectors,” she said. “In order to make progress those sectors will have to continue to working together.”