Obama went on for about 20 minutes, and the crowd came roaring to its feet with her closing call to arms: “I’m in this! And I’m in this for life—I’m in this until we fix this! So today I want to ask all of you: Are you in this with me?”
It was, on the whole, a solid pep talk. That said, the very fact of it was a reminder that the anti-obesity movement’s biggest champion is about to lose her unique bully pulpit.
It is a bittersweet fact of politics: First ladies move on, leaving behind their pet projects and the web of organizations and people that support them. Come January, Michelle Obama will pack up her trainers and her boxing gloves. She will take a farewell stroll through her beloved veggie garden, and then she will hand the keys to the East Wing over to someone else. Regardless of who that someone turns out to be—Melania, Bill, Jane, or the spouse of some GOP white knight still TBD—that person will blow into the office with new priorities and a new signature issue upon which to bestow his or her “sparkle.” For her part, Obama will continue to hawk veggies and do her pushups (those guns are still a marvel!), but it just won’t have the same snap once she’s not doing it from the White House.
Larry Soler, president and CEO of PHA, assures me that this will not be a problem. The upside of knowing exactly when the spotlight will shift, he says, is that you have the time, space, and incentive to think ahead. “Obviously we’ve been planning for this for awhile,” he says, noting that 18 months ago, PHA began “a strategic planning process” that included hiring an outside firm to find out “what other stakeholders were thinking” and “what other groups who had gone through [similar changes] had done.” Soler and his board have spent a lot of time “visualizing,” and prepping for, a post-first-lady future. Among other goals: Keep the star-power burning by growing the stable of kid-friendly celebrities pitching the healthy eating cause. NBA phenom Steph Curry is already a booster of the partnership’s FNV campaign. (That’s nonprofit for “Fruits and Veggies”). Soler and Co. are constantly thinking in terms of, as Obama challenged in her speech, “Who’s going to be our next Steph Curry?”
Specific strategies aside, PHA believes that, after six years, the movement has enough momentum to be self-sustaining. “This has grown beyond just one person,” says Soler. “It’s now a cross-sector movement and is being driven by so many different things.”
Chief among those drivers? Public demand. “It is numbers one, two, and three in terms of what’s the most important factor here,” says Soler. Consumers want healthier choices, and that has a direct impact on the private sector’s bottom-line. (Some of the biggest changes, he notes, are in the beverage industry, where soda consumption is declining and water consumption is on the rise.) Companies are looking for “the win-win of improving health but also selling more products,” he tells me. “Consumer interest has moved so much over last five years,” he notes. “You can’t talk to a major food company CEO without hearing them show concern about products.”