Friday, February 19, 2010

The First Lady’s New Health Care Initiative

In her first year as First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama has taken on a variety of issues. From the very beginning, she has emphasized public service by personally volunteering in a variety of projects that have helped the homeless, school children, and members of the military. She has been an advocate for military families, while also supporting the organic movement through the White House garden. Despite criticism that she has overstepped her role as First Lady, Mrs. Obama has also served as an advocate for some of her husband’s policies. In early February, however, Mrs. Obama launched “Let’s Move," a nationwide campaign to fight childhood obesity.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that 32% of kids between the ages of 2 and 19 are overweight or obese. This means that 1 in 3 American children are at a higher risk for a variety of weight-related diseases including diabetes, heart disease, atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome, some types of cancer, etc. Rates of obesity in the U.S. have tripled in the last 30 years, and for the first time in history, American children may face a shorter lifespan than their parents.

As a result of these troubling statistics, the Let’s Move campaign seeks to solve the epidemic of childhood obesity within a generation. The first goal of the movement is to help empower parents and give them the support they need. Mrs. Obama plans to do this by working with the Food and Drug Administration to create more user-friendly front-of-package labeling, by working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to update the food pyramid, and by working with doctors and nurses to ensure that they monitor at-risk children from an early age and council parents on healthy habits. The campaign hopes that these measures will allow parents to have all the information they need to make healthy choices for their children.

In addition to parental assistance, the second and third goals of the campaign are to provide healthier food to school children and to help kids be more physically active. These targets will surely be a challenge in a nation where “8-18 year-olds spend an average of 7.5 hours per day consuming entertainment media, like TV, movies, Internet, video games, and cell phones”; however, Mrs. Obama is determined to counter sedentary entertainment by creating safe playgrounds and community centers where children can play. She also wants to increase sports, dance, and fitness programs that will help keep kids interested.

The final goal of the campaign is to eliminate what are known as “food deserts” by making healthy and affordable food available in all parts of the country within seven years. Food deserts are defined as communities where access to healthy foods is often limited because supermarkets containing fresh fruits and vegetables are over a mile away. In these neighborhoods, residents are forced to rely on convenience stores full of pre-packaged, high calorie foods. Currently, over 23 million Americans, including 6.5 million children, reside in food deserts. In accordance with the Let’s Move campaign, President Obama has proposed a $400 million per year investment in the budget to help bring grocery stores and farmer’s markets into food deserts while also providing convenience stores with healthier options. Additionally, President Obama has called for an extra $1 billion to help fund child nutrition programs.

On the local level, the Inner City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) is working to reduce food deserts on Chicago’s south-side through the “Muslim Run” campaign. By addressing the lack of access to healthy foods in low-income neighborhoods, IMAN hopes to reduce poverty while developing an alternative, holistic, and empowering business model that highlights interethnic cooperation between Muslim business owners and their communities. IMAN is currently working with State Senator Jacqueline Collins to help get money from a fresh food bill spread out to assist a wider pool of grocers that will include convenience stores as opposed to only mainline supermarkets.

While the goals of the Let’s Move campaign seem to truly have the best interests of children in mind, one has to wonder if there is more to this program given that it was launched at a time when President Obama’s health care reform package is on life-support. Could Michelle Obama’s new health care initiative be a vehicle to implement some of the necessary health care reforms that have stalled in Congress? Given the concern that our current heath care system has the potential to bankrupt the U.S. Government in the near future, isn’t it a good idea to start encouraging people to be healthier so that they don’t need to utilize the system as heavily? Also of interest is the fact that childhood obesity has been one of the main causes for Bill Clinton and the William J. Jefferson Foundation for some time. Could this be a quid-pro-quo for some political favor, or does Mrs. Obama just want to insert a breath of fresh air into the cause?

“A recent study put the health care cost of obesity-related diseases at $147 billion a year”, and as the population grows, so will these figures. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius commented that “Helping kids eat healthier diets and increasing their opportunities for exercise will greatly improve both their physical and mental health, make for healthier adults, and help reduce medical costs.” Even Raymond Baxter, Senior Vice President of Community Outreach for Kaiser Permanente is on board. Kaiser Permanente, an insurance company made notorious for not always having the best interests of its clients in mind - along with other health insurance companies, seeks to profit from having fewer claims to pay out on chronically ill patients. Likewise, the United States military also seeks to benefit from a healthier generation as “obesity is now one of the most common disqualifiers for military service.”

Although some may write this anti-obesity campaign off as “big” government trying to control our behavior and tell us what to do, the truth is that we can all benefit from eating better and exercising. In The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama questions the power of the state to control individual actions. He writes that “we all agree that there must be limits to the state’s power to control our behavior, even if it’s for our own good” (pg. 36). Michelle Obama is not trying to control or monitor every child. She is, however, looking toward the future and helping to make a healthier America. In a Chicago Sun-Times article, Lynn Sweet writes that Michelle Obama is “no food purist—Mrs. Obama enjoys her burgers and fries”. Sweet goes on to quote Mrs. Obama as saying that she is not looking to have the “government tell people what to do.” Instead, Mrs. Obama says, “I’m looking at what we all can do.”

Taking the future implications of “Let’s Move” a step further, an interesting article by Marco Visscher appeared in Ode Magazine discussing the connection between diet and behavior in children- especially in children that are developmentally challenged or have behavior problems. Visscher poses the idea that there is a direct connection between the food we consume and our resulting behavior. He sites a study done at a Wisconsin school for developmentally challenged children where vending machines were swapped with water coolers and hamburgers and fries were replaced with fresh fruits, vegetables, whole-grain bread, and a salad bar. Over time, there were drastic decreases in fights, behavior problems, vandalism, and litter. Additionally, the need for a high-security police officer to patrol the halls was no longer needed. In a similar study, by Stephen Schoenthaler, performed in a low-income neighborhood in New York City, “the number of students passing final exams rose from 11 percent below the national average to five percent above.” Schoenthaler, a criminal-justice professor, has proven through his studies that “reducing the sugar and fat intake in our daily diets leads to higher IQs and better grades in school.”

Simple changes in nutrition may, in fact, be one of the easiest, cheapest, and most humane ways to increase grades and decrease behavior problems in America’s schools. If “Let’s Move” does all that it seeks to do and accomplishes its stated goals, then America is likely to become a much healthier and productive society.

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