Inside the Obama Obesity Initiative


Photo by TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

The official launch of Michelle Obama's major anti-obesity initiative was obscured by her husband's surprise press conference and the threat of another major snowstorm in Washington. That's unfortunate, because never before has the government promised to devote as much time and money to the childhood obesity epidemic. To get a sense of what the roots of the initiative look like, and what Mrs. Obama's objectives are, I spoke yesterday afternoon with Susan Sher, the First Lady's chief of staff. My questions are edited for brevity; her answers are included in their entirety.

Marc Ambinder: Could you talk to me about how the announcement came together? Can you go into a bit of that process for me?

Susan Sher: You mean way back starting with the gardens, or when Mrs. Obama decided she really wanted to make this a singular issue?

MA: Well, actually, both would be good.

SS: Her interest in the garden started really, I mean she had this idea even before she was in the White House and she started that last spring. I think that what happened was working with the kids from Bancroft school and seeing how much they learned and how much it meant and how it was a wonderful platform, just started her thinking. I think it just developed into her appreciation that this is something that was really important. I mean even just the stuff you've heard about, the work that's been going on around the country that she's been able to highlight, and companies saying that their revenue on selling seeds have spiked as a result of her garden. It was a process, and last summer, we had a meeting here that she chaired where we had experts literally from all over the world talking about these issues, and again, physical activity as you know was always a part of it. When you think about the Easter Egg Roll, it wasn't just about rolling an Easter egg but there was a whole movement activity component of it, the hula hooping she did in the garden, et cetera, so I think her thoughts have sort of developed.

And one of the things we learned about, and this is—Obama learned about—when we talked to some of the experts about the work that's been done in the United Kingdom, they were quite vocal about how this has to be done on a national scale. I think that and talking to the various agencies who've been involved in this who have been really quite cooperative, particularly Agriculture, Health and Human Services, and Education, I mean that's the core group, but we created our own working group and I have to say she's kept all of us focused and pushing. It was important to come up with goals and that they had to be measurable and that they had to be aggressive.

MA: On the socioeconomic dimension to this problem, how the government can and can't help with the social capital gap when it comes to childhood obesity?

SS: Well when you talk about socioeconomic issues, obviously food deserts are a serious problem. One of the four pillars is access to affordable, healthy food. I don't know if you got to see it on TV, but one of the things she showed behind the screen was a food atlas that the Department of Agriculture has come up with that can literally show you the state of access to grocery stores that sell produce, etc., all over the country, and areas where type-2 diabetes and other obesity-related illnesses are prevalent. I think the way she talks about it is that we're all in this together, without people either feeling guilty, or totally avoiding the blame game, because I think she realizes it's sort of modern life that makes all of this so difficult. Everybody is so busy and it's not the fault of any individual. We hope that goes a far way to making people feel comfortable making the small changes they need to make.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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