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.

MA: I notice the first lady talks about this in the language of morality, not in the language of choice ...

SS: I mean you can talk about it from the perspectives of the economics of it, you know, the $147 billion in health care costs, which is obviously very serious. But you can also talk about it that we as parents or as the older generation do have this moral obligation to make life better for our children. I know that one of the statistics that really surprised her and that is absolutely a call to action is that these kids who are growing up now may be the first generation whose life expectancy may be less than their parents, and that's pretty daunting.

MA: What will the first year look like? Can you briefly sketch out for me this campaign—what are some of the organizational goals for this time next year?

SS: I think that a lot of the metrics are not determined yet. There are two major pieces: The task force that literally was created today, so it hasn't even had a meeting yet, it's going to be pretty important in terms of the national plan. And the other piece of this is the foundation, which I'm pleased to say actually exists and has been created and these foundations that Mrs. Obama mentioned are funding it for a few years. One of the things they are going to be involved in is metrics, to make sure that whatever is being done actually makes sense and can be measured. They're also going to be a convener, in terms of bringing together experts, so, I don't think it would be appropriate to be more specific. This is the launch, this is just the very beginning, it isn't even clear. I mean there are a lot of others calling us even today saying "we want to get with the program," so if I told you anything now, and then we had a conversation a year from now, I have a feeling that I probably wouldn't have necessarily been accurate, because I think that this is really taking off.

MA: Is conquering obesity within a generation feasible?

SS: Yes, we believe it is.