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Credit: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images rst lady Michelle Obama in the White House Kitchen Garden with local elementary school students

Michelle Obama ’88 on cultivating a healthier future for children

For the past five years, Michelle Obama ’88 has used her position as first lady for a cause she is passionate about: ending the epidemic of childhood obesity in the U.S. Through her Let’s Move! initiative, she encourages physical activity and healthier food choices among youngsters. A member of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau at HLS, she went on to practice with Sidley Austin in Chicago before working for the University of Chicago Medical Center. She says an “eye-opening” conversation with her daughters’ pediatrician led to a change in her family’s eating habits when the girls were young, and she wants to share the lessons she learned. She points to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on a decline in childhood obesity rates as a sign that Let’s Move! is making progress. Harvard Law Bulletin reporter Elaine McArdle asked the first lady about the initiative.

Bulletin: Did your training at Harvard Law School influence your interest in or approach to this issue?

Michelle Obama: Both my classes and my time at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau helped me understand how law and policy—properly understood and applied—can improve people’s lives, and I think my work with Let’s Move! is a good example of this. But my time at the Legal Aid Bureau also taught me—and my work with Let’s Move! has reaffirmed this lesson—that government is only one player. To effect meaningful change on any issue, we need everyone involved. That’s why we’ve worked so hard to reach out to people from every sector of society—faith leaders, medical professionals, business executives, educators, parents and more—in our efforts to help our kids grow up healthy.

Why is there so much interest today, at this point in history, in issues around food and our food systems?

The way we live and eat has changed drastically over the last 30 years. We eat fewer home-cooked meals and our portion sizes have gotten larger and larger. As a result, we’ve seen an increase in obesity and its associated health risks, such as diabetes and heart disease. Poor diet is now the number one cause of preventable death and disease in this country.

As diet-related health problems have become more common, more and more people have started paying attention to what they’re eating, and they’re asking for healthier products in stores and at restaurants. Companies are adjusting their offerings to include healthier options. Restaurants and schools are implementing farm-to-table and farm-to-school programs to incorporate locally grown produce and products within their menu items. This not only helps those local farmers, ranchers, and food processors and manufacturers; it also helps customers and students understand where their food comes from.

What are the biggest victories your work has achieved so far?

In launching Let’s Move!, we took what felt like an insurmountable problem and gave folks a sense of optimism and hope that we could solve it. And now, as we’ve seen from new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we’re actually experiencing a decline in childhood obesity rates, so we know we’re on the right track.

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After Let’s Move!, Her Next Move

Michelle Obama is now expanding her efforts to help young people, through a new initiative that seeks to increase the number of low-income students who pursue college degrees. Only about half of American high school graduates from low-income families head to college, compared with 80 percent from middle- and upper-income families. President Barack Obama ’91 has set a goal to move the United States from 12th to first in the world in the percentage of college graduates by 2020.

On Nov. 12, the first lady kicked off the initiative with an address to sophomores at a Washington, D.C., high school. A first-generation college graduate who holds an A.B. from Princeton in addition to her HLS J.D., she draws on her own experience to encourage students to overcome obstacles to pursuing higher education.

“Some of my teachers straight up told me that I was setting my sights too high. They told me I was never going to get into a school like Princeton,” she told the high school students. “It’s your attitude,” she said. “It’s your commitment. You decide how high you set your goals. You decide how hard you’re going to work for those goals.”

Already, big businesses, governors and mayors, museums and gardens, and even the Department of Defense have gotten involved. For example, Walmart has committed to reducing the cost of fruits, vegetables and whole grains to make them more affordable for their customers. And they are working with manufacturers of their products to eliminate trans fats and reduce sugar by 10 percent and sodium by 25 percent in their products by 2015.

In addition, there are now more than 60 million people across the country who live in a community that is a Let’s Move! city, town or county, meaning that local officials have committed to promoting healthy eating and physical activity. More than 10,000 child care providers have committed to serving healthy meals and snacks and instilling healthy habits through our Let’s Move! Child Care initiative. Faith leaders are starting wellness ministries and hosting farmers’ markets. The U.S. military is serving healthier food on its bases. And just this year, we launched Let’s Move! Active Schools, which is an effort to get kids moving before, during and after school in order to reintegrate physical activity into their daily lives. Since its launch in February, more than 5,600 schools have already signed up.

We also implemented new school lunch standards to bring healthier meals into our school cafeterias—including more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. And starting next school year, school vending machines and a la carte lines will offer healthier snacks. These changes mean that the hard work parents are doing at home to keep their kids healthy will now be reinforced throughout the school day.

Finally, the media industry and food companies are shifting the way they market food to children. Just recently, Sesame Workshop and the Produce Marketing Association came together in a two-year agreement that allows fruit and vegetable growers, suppliers, and retailers to use images of Sesame Street characters to market their products without paying a licensing fee. Soon, parents will see Big Bird, Elmo, Rosita, and other characters their kids love plastered up and down the produce aisle. This is a huge deal, because studies show that simply pasting an Elmo sticker on an apple or a piece of broccoli can dramatically increase kids’ interest in eating these healthy foods.

Have there been any particular challenges that you did not anticipate? If so, how have you responded to them?

We all know change isn’t easy, but we also know that we need to take risks if we want to see real results. Fortunately, businesses now realize this. They’re now seeing that taking short-term risks—like offering healthier products—can lead to a long-term payoff, especially now that healthier eating is becoming the new normal for many of our kids.

To encourage this type of change, we held a White House Convening on Food Marketing to Children in September. At that convening, I reminded food, beverage, and media companies that great American companies have always acted boldly, innovated, and taken risks. It wasn’t that long ago that “going green” and taking your business online were considered risky endeavors. However, companies that saw where the future was headed and took that leap have been rewarded.

I said that mindful that companies must be profitable in order to survive, and that those profits keep our economy going every day. However, the fact is that marketing nutritious foods to our kids isn’t just good for our kids’ health; it can also be good for companies’ bottom lines. For example, Birds Eye Vegetables launched a major marketing campaign featuring characters from the popular kids show “iCarly,” and their sales jumped 20 percent in just two months.

And have there been pleasant surprises along the way—e.g., partners or supporters whom you did not expect?

Back when we first started Let’s Move!, I worried about how much we could actually accomplish. The problem of childhood obesity was so complex, the statistics were staggering, and so many people were skeptical about our chances to make real change. However, I’m happy to say that we’re now seeing results that we could never have imagined back when we were starting out.

For example, now when you turn on the television, instead of seeing nothing but ads for greasy, fried foods, you’ll see fast-food ads for egg white breakfast sandwiches and chicken wraps bursting with lettuce. And now when you sit down for a meal at Red Lobster or Olive Garden, you’ll find kids menus filled not just with nuggets, fries, and soda, but with fruits and veggies, whole grains, and low-fat milk.

I’ve also been inspired by how companies aren’t just making changes on their own; they’re also joining together with their competitors to promote healthier choices. For example, as part of a new Drink Up initiative, more than a dozen competing companies have come together to encourage people to drink more water. And Nike and Reebok are part of our Let’s Move! Active Schools effort to get physical activity back into schools. These are fierce competitors all working together for our children’s health.

Finally, in the beginning, there were some doubts as to whether kids would really embrace healthy eating. But everywhere I go, I’m amazed at how excited they are to try new fruits and vegetables. And it’s remarkable to see schools growing gardens and installing salad bars and replacing fryers with steamers to prepare healthier options for their students. I can’t tell you how many stories we’ve heard about kids who worked in a garden at their school and then came home and requested vegetables for a snack. Or, they saw a cooking demonstration in their cafeteria, and that night they asked their parents to bake their dinner instead of frying it. These are the kinds of changes I was hoping for, and as I hear more and more stories like these, I feel more and more hopeful about the future.

What is your biggest goal to achieve in this work over the next three years, before President Obama leaves office?

My goal is to keep moving this initiative forward so we can really cement the cultural shift that is taking place. Right now, we’re truly at a pivotal moment—a tipping point when the message is beginning to break through, when new habits are beginning to take hold, and we’re seeing the very first glimmer of the kind of transformational change that we’re capable of making in this country. And if we keep pushing forward, we have the potential to transform the health of an entire generation of young people. So we can’t stop now—we need to double down on our efforts over the next three years and continue to work together to help kids all across America grow up healthy and fulfill their boundless potentials. And for me, this effort won’t be limited to my husband’s time in office—this will be a lifelong passion and commitment.