First Lady Schticks

February 13th, 2010 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

Fat baby faceBefore I clumsily chip at First Lady Michelle Obama’s new crusade, I must say that it beats Lady Bird Johnson’s by at least the width of Texas.

Barack Obama’s wife has turned to Let’s Move: America’s Move to Raise a Healthier Generation of Kids. Lyndon Johnson’s uxorial unit went for a Highway Beautification Program.  Both projects far exceed the proverbial rich spouse operating an antique shop or art gallery.

Lady Bird was shallower in some ways and deeper in others. Michelle has boldly claimed the “national goal of solving the challenge of childhood obesity within a generation.” Lady Bird reflected both the tenor of her time and the culture of her native Texas.

Specifically, she said, “You know, driving for pleasure is the No. 1 American recreation. We are a nation of people who use automobiles. And so, to make the highways more beautiful would certainly add a lot to our pleasure in living. ” At the same time, she understood the primacy of appearances and worked to raise money, increase awareness and lead efforts to fix up blighted areas of the nation’s capital. She accurately noted that residents would more like take pride in areas that she’d call beautiful.

svelte MichelleMichelle too only kind of gets the issue. This very wealthy, high privileged and not coincidentally trim lawyer/homemaker/Presidential mate looks around and researches to understand the realities of a fat America. In particular, she feels for obese children — the five foot tall 400 pounders — all too common.

I recall my own such sense of that maybe nine years ago when we were on a historical sites trip with our two youngest and spent an overnight in York, Pennsylvania. The closest restaurant to our motel was an Old Country Buffet (part of a chain). There, we saw a higher concentration of steatopygous and hyperfat folk than anywhere we had been in the South or elsewhere.

It was an all-you-can-eat joint. We had no idea what that could mean. I recalled in college going to a fried-chicken place in South Carolina where we students would go and eat two or three plates of food, to regret it for the next two days. The OCB was a different world, parallel in many ways to normal reality and vastly disparate in others. In college, we were pathetic, unskilled amateurs.

At least half the customers could not even pretend to fit on their sturdy (of course, OCB furnished big, old oak chairs with no restricting arms) seats. They were up and down several times each, adults and kids alike. They were masterful in pyramiding their plates and huge ice cream bowls. I walked in feeling a bit chubby and out of shape, but I was positively reed-like in this room.

The buffet’s FAQ gives, if you pardon, a taste of the customer expectations. For one Q&A:

Q. I am on a restricted diet that only allows me to eat very small portions. Can you offer a discount?

A. This question arises occasionally, including from guests that have recently had surgery. It is important to understand that our pricing is based on a reasonably sized “meal,” not a specific “quantity of food” or an “unlimited” amount. Individual guests have widely differing perspectives on what they feel is an appropriate meal size. We serve more than 150 million guests per year and each one has unique menu expectations and health requirements. For simplicity sake, we adopted a uniform pricing approach when the company was formed over 29 years ago and this has become a hallmark of our business.

That speaks to several factors in the fattening of us. One that many in Michelle’s circles may forget or not know is that Americans want their share, their fair share. Another is that the assumption is that we are the sole arbiters of how much is enough.

Not So Simple

Moreover, our eating patterns relate also to economic stratum, family and ethnicity among other factors. At its worst, some people live in what Michelle joins others in calling food deserts, that is places without accessible groceries and other markets that stock affordable healthy fruits, grains and vegetables.

So while the nutrition basics are widely taught in schools, on TV and after-school programs,  many parents scraping by with the parent(s) working long hours at low pay have neither the money nor the time to get and prepare healthy food. That has never been a problem in Michelle’s house.

So, what’s a well-intentioned First Lady to do? Well, her Let’s Move shopping cart has both good stuff and junk food-ism in it.  For example:

Empower Consumers. A silly gesture of having the FDA encourage or require easy-to-grok nutrition labels on the front of packages. Nearly all customers will ignore those as they do the box-side labels. Like either the parent or child will stop eating or drinking when the listed serving size is consumed.

Provide Parents with a Rx for Healthier Living.  The American Academy of Pediatrics will educate nurses and doctors, who in turn will educate patients.This is good and bad in one. First and positively, health-care pros have been notoriously ignorant about nutrition; it’s well past time they came up to speed. Unfortunately, this also will rely on the lazy-doctor/nurse metric of BMI, body mass index. Rather than observe and palpate children, they would use this highly flawed mass measuring system for individuals. Athletic, muscular children will be stigmatized as overweight or obese and scrawny, underdeveloped ones with no muscle tone and often large amounts of excess fat around organs will come off as healthy. There are easy ways of quickly measuring the meaningful body fat with inexpensive, hand-held devices that would be an order of magnitude better than the glorified height/weight chart that is BMI.

Major New Public Information Campaign.  A marginally efficient but harmless PR and announcement servies from NBC, Disney and such won’t hurt.

Serving Healthier Foods in Schools.  This one gets to the asphalt. For many kids, the only healthy one or two meals they could get five days a week would be in school. Our state and federal governments have too long encouraged and subsidized dreadfully bad foods in school — fatty, sugary and full of refined carbs. We have paid farmers and processors to churn out that junk and then the schools put it in front of the kids and get astonished when they chub up and pig out. Coupled with this is the beginning of an pledge to get the major school-meal contractors to provide good nutrition, although they get five years when they could do it in a couple of months.

Eliminate Food Deserts. The feds are committing $400 million a year to getting decent groceries where they do not exist. Again,  this would work best if the parents had the money to buy fresh fruits and vegetables instead of the much more affordable starches and sugars. Michelle shows her dilettantish bent here by including an Increase in Farmers Markets, as though the families who most need produce could afford what she easily buys.

Increasing Physical Activity.  Yes, this is crucial and her program says it in multiple almost identical ways. Unfortunately, she has not striven for the progressive solutions that address the underlying problems. I say that we grew up with and benefited from daily PE. Most schools don’t and would have to expand their days 30 to 60 minutes to do so. They should, they must, if we are to have healthy kids. This is doable and belongs in any such proposals.

Real Solutions

I think Michelle deserves an A for intention, but only a C or C- for execution. She is just one more voice crying about this very real problem. She is slick and persuasive, as is her husband. Their voices will carry some additional power and can’t hurt.

Unfortunately, she’s stayed too close to the surface on this one. She should also identify and address underlying problems. There aren’t that many and the only intractable one is getting poor and almost-poor parents into decent paying jobs. Education is not as big a solution as providing people with options. There’s not doubt in my mind that if parents can roll their grocery carts down the aisles, and have enough cash to buy anything, they’d come home with a lot healthier food and have kids that show the benefit.

The two first ladies so long distant in tenure share a theme in their crusades. Appearances account for much and more or less equal the the more meaningful interior. That is at once superficial and substantive.

Lady Bird’s billboard-free interstate highways really didn’t do much beyond give drivers a marginally more pleasant trip. Yet, her insistence that beautifying D.C. had the effect of repairing ratty buildings and helping instill or renew pride in the residents, in turn lowering crime rates and such.

Michelle’s latest effort could easily be similar. She too is taking an airy approach to a complex problem. The brutal fact is that the best hope for healthy kids would be for their parents or equivalents to have decent paying jobs. That would lead to a better mix of healthy (relatively expensive) food, more leisure and hence more activity.

She can’t ensure such income improvement and her Let’s Move doesn’t pretend to try. It certainly can’t hurt and is likely to help some kids. Even coupled with existing messages in schools and larger society, it’s not going to be a revolution though…any more than Lady Bird’s highway program meant the end of litter and ugly roadside views.

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One Response

  1. Jamie Holts says:

    Just wanted to say HI. I found your blog a few days ago on Technorati and have been reading it over the past few days.

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