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First lady: Parents should fight for good nutrition

First Lady Michelle Obama finished her three-day tour celebrating the two-year anniversary of her “Let’s Move” anti-obesity campaign this weekend by:
  • Telling parents they should “fight” for healthy school meals
  • Revealing some details of how she and her family eat and exercise
  • Inviting faith-based, community, and other non-profit organizations to enter videos about their efforts to reverse the trend of childhood obesity in a contest that will be run partly by the Agriculture Department, with winners receiving invitations to the White House.

The first lady's tour came just as a Tennessee Republican congressman introduced a bill that would ban the use of federal funds in advertising campaigns against the consumption of American foods. See following story.

At a Friday event in Homestead, Fla., Obama said parents need to be aware of food choices at their childrens' school. “I think parent involvement in schools at all levels is really critical, and I don't think that there's any parent here who should feel that they don't have the right to ask those kind of questions,” she said.

She noted that the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act contains provisions to improve the nutritional content of meals.

“How things are implemented on the ground in your school is really up to the parents and the students and the teachers,” the first lady said. “So it's really important for you to keep an eye on what's happening in your kids’ lunchrooms. And you definitely should ask questions, and sit down and talk to the principal, and get other parents involved to make sure that you’re satisfied with the choices that are being made for your kids.”

School meals, she noted, may be the main source of nutrition for children, particularly if the children are from low-income families and participate in school breakfast as well as lunch.

“Don't let anyone intimidate you,” Obama said. “Our kids need parents who are watching and concerned. … This is a fight worth fighting for parents. And I would urge you all not to shy away from it.”

A Partnership for a Healthier America official noted that it has established guidelines for snacks at after-school events that say water should be the preferred beverage, that snacks should be fruits, vegetables or healthy grains and that physical activity should be involved.

In striving to make her family eat healthy food, get exercise and take meals together, Obama said she:

  • Reminds her daughters that a lot of foods are healthy depending on how they are prepared. A hamburger lunch is not unhealthy, she said, “if it's on a whole-wheat bun, if the fries are baked, if it's not fried, if it’s grilled.”
  • Encourages her children to make some lunches “a fun lunch,” meaning that they can eat whatever they want, and others a “healthy lunch that must have a vegetable, but can be pasta, preferably whole wheat pasta or chicken nuggets if they are baked.”
  • Tells her kids that even when they are traveling, dessert “is a sometimes treat” reserved for weekends.
  • Uses nuts, trail mix and air-popped popcorn as snacks
  • Often eats peanut butter and apples before a workout.
  • Cooked at home before her husband was elected president in order to reduce costs and improve her family’s nutrition. “We eliminated the number of times we went out. And that made a huge difference. Now, that meant that I had to be way more organized about cooking. But I would cook a big meal on Sunday. So we'd have Sunday; that would last until Monday; I'd get a break on Tuesday; we'd come around on Thursday, get another meal.”
  • Stops everything in the White House at 6:30 p.m. so the family can have dinner together. “When the president travels, his goal is to get home in time for dinner. And that's really the time that we get to connect with our girls,” the first lady said, noting that they aren't as focused on "gobbling their food down" if they’re engaged in a conversation. "They're really focused on tasting their food, and taking their time, and cutting their food. And then we use that time to talk about manners — how to hold a fork, and sitting up, and take your elbows off the table — little things like that that nowadays kids, they don’t know these basic things because we don't have time to sit down with them.”
  • Tells her children that they cannot have dessert unless they finish their vegetables and that “if you're walking away, you definitely can’t come back later and ask for cookies or chips or whatever. If you're full, you're full. I don’t want to see you in the kitchen after that."
  • Has established strict rules for her daughters about TV and computer time and does not allow them to watch TV during the week. “They can earn an hour if they finish everything they have to do for that week, and they have to earn it. So they can work towards an hour during the week. They have two hours on Friday, three hours on Saturday, two hours of Friday — period.”
  • Works out every day doing everything from hula hooping to kick boxing, and recommends that women put on their gym clothes when they come home from work. “We as women in particular, have to be that role model for our girls especially,” she said. “So when I get on the treadmill and my girls see me, I make sure they know, ‘Mommy is tired. Mommy doesn’t want to work out. I would rather go back to bed. But after you go to school, I’m going up to the gym because it’s good for me, and I’ll feel better once I'm done.’ So if you just get over that hump — just do it — and eventually just know it’s going to feel better. I promise you.”
  • Finds the White House kitchen garden “has been one of the best and most fulfilling things that I’ve done as first lady,” but that some plants have worked out better than others. “Sweet potatoes are a big favorite, because you never know what they look like until you pull them up from the ground, and then they’re these huge monstrous potatoes. So the kids that help us harvest get a big kick out of that. We’ve tried to plant watermelon; haven’t done so well on watermelon. We got some little pumpkins. We’ve worked on some berries, but we can’t keep the birds away from the berries. Lots of snap peas, broccoli.”

On Saturday at the Northland Church in Longwood, Fla., the first lady acknowledged that religious institutions of all types were already sponsoring health ministries and fitness classes, hosting food pantries and summer nutrition programs for kids when she started “Let’s Move,” which includes a faith and communities component.

Members of Let’s Move Faith and Communities have sponsored more than 1,000 summer nutrition sites providing millions of healthy meals for children in need, she said.

Obama noted that Muslim community leaders are hosting youth sports tournaments, and that the Jewish Community Centers Association is growing gardens and getting fresh food into underserved areas around the country. She said the National Council of Churches has joined with an organization called Ample Harvest to help gardeners donate fresh produce to 4,700 of their local food pantries, and that the National Baptist Convention is aiming to have health ambassadors at all of their nearly 10,000 churches by September.

Some churches, she noted, have created “no fry” zones in their congregations and offering “Taste Test Sundays” with samples of healthy foods. She urged them to go further by sponsoring hikes and offering fruits and vegetables instead of coffee and doughnuts after services.

But the number of faith and community organizations involved is only a “tiny percentage” of those organizations in the country, she said. To encourage participation, she asked groups to send her videos “to show us the best examples of the healthy changes that you’re making.”

There will be two winning entries selected — a first-prize winner judged by a panel of experts from “Let’s Move," the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services, and a popular choice winner selected through public voting, the White House said in a news release.

Both winners will be invited to Washington, D.C., for an event where their videos will be showcased. Each winner will receive an award of $1,000 to defray travel costs.

Up to seven honorable mention winners will be selected by the panel and invited to Washington as well. All the winners will have their videos featured on the “Let’s Move!” website.

Administration of the video challenge is provided by the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion and USDA Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Obama said that while she hoped the video contest would be fun, she was serious that congregations and organizations should “embrace these efforts on behalf of our children.”

“It won’t be easy,” she said. “But our faith communities have never shrunk from a challenge, right? From slavery to civil rights, from poverty to human rights, so many of our congregations have been a force for justice and equality. Right? So many have been the righteous voice for the least among us, working every day, in ways large and small, to repair our world.”