The Obamas' Political Obesity

Making America's children skinner by fattening up the government.

A massive, high-profile federal program is under way to try to end childhood obesity in a generation. At issue is whether it can be primarily a voluntary effort or whether government intrusion, controls, and politics will play major roles. The objective is noble and heart-warming. But, being government directed, citizens’ free-will will be tested. The program is led by Michelle Obama. Her task force will “review every single program and policy relating to childhood nutrition and physical activity and develop a national action plan that maximize federal resources” to conduct her plan, said a Chicago Sun-Times story.

Government has a lengthy history of trying to guard the public’s health, including that of children. But Michelle Obama has now linked the health of African-American children to the civil rights struggle of that earlier dark period in America.

For African-Americans “[w]e’re decades beyond slavery, we are decades beyond Jim Crow, when one of the greatest risks to our children’s future is their own health...African-American children are significantly more likely to be obese than are white children. Nearly half of African-American children will develop diabetes....” Mrs. Obama told the NAACP convention July 12.

She also told the civil rights organization “Studies have found that African-American children spend an average of nearly six hours a day watching TV—and that every extra hour of TV they watch is associated with the consumption of an additional 167 calories.”

Shortly after the close of its convention, the NAACP branded the Tea Party activists as bigots, adopting a resolution condemning alleged racism in that political movement. A Tea Party activist, Alex Poulter, disputed the charge, saying he has seen no racism in the movement. The loosely-knit organization is “upset with what’s going on with this country,” Poulter explained: over-the-top spending, debt, and bureaucratic controls.

Mrs. Obama’s address on obesity came at a time when she was attempting to change Americans’ distaste for the new health care overhaul. On July 14, Mrs. Obama, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, and Vice President Biden’s wife, Jill, set out to defend the heavily criticized and unpopular Obamacare law. They met with doctors, nurses and other health workers to discuss preventive health-care coverage. The law now requires insurance plans to provide preventive care.

The White House and Democratic National Committee have been touting the new health law in the face of universal forecasts that the Democrats may lose the House of Representatives to Republicans in the November election. The trillion dollar nationalized health care is part of the Obama Administration’s spending binge, the cost of which is frightening a majority of voters.

Certainly childhood health problems are grave concerns, particularly for parents. One in three kids today is overweight or obese, puting them at risk for diabetes or high blood pressure. Many will have shorter life spans than their parents, various studies have predicted.

Michelle Obama formally announced on Feb. 9 what she called “a very ambitious” program to end childhood obesity in a single generation. “We want to eliminate this problem of childhood obesity in a generation. The extensive national campaign, called “Let’s move,” involves innumerable initiatives, including informing parents about nutrition and exercise, improving food quality in schools, making wholesome food both more affordable and more accessible, and stressing physical education.

Mrs. Obama’s “Let’s Move’ program includes the Healthy Food Financing Initiative. It will spend $400 million a year to bring grocery stores to ‘underserved’ areas and “offer incentives for neighborhood convenience stores to carry healthier food options,” as reported by NPR in February. It will make available federal tax credits, below-market rate loans, loan guarantees, and grants to attract private investors to take a chance on constructing new grocery stores. Also the Department of Agriculture “will partner with schools across the nation to help them meet guidelines set by the Healthier U.S. Schools Challenge Program....” It will establish “rigorous standards for schools’ food quality, participation in meal programs, physical activity, and nutrition education.” “Let’s Move” will also “help schools implement provisions of The Child Nutrition Act.” Obama’s budget calls for an increase of $1 billion annually for the next decade for “healthier” school meals.

The concept of healthier school diets is not new. The National School Lunch Program was launched way back in 1946. The program is operating in more than 100,000 public and non-profit private schools and residential child care institutions. It provides nutritionally balanced low-cost and free lunches to more than 31 million children each school day. No more than 30 percent of a meal’s calories come from fat and less than 10 percent from saturated fat. School lunches provide one-third of the “recommended dietary allowances of protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, iron, calcium, and calories.” Specific food choices—at least for the moment-- are made by local school authorities. The program has been extended to summer and after-school health snacks in some areas. Children in families with incomes at or below 130 percent of poverty level are eligible for free meals. In 2010, that’s $28,665 for a family of four.

Even federal initiatives specifically to fight obesity are nothing new. In 2004, Pinellas County, Florida, was one of 22 counties across the country which got $35.7 million from the Health and Human Services Department to battle obesity. In Dan Marino’s restaurant in St. Petersburg, FL., kids were offered an expanded choice of healthy foods. “Now 40 percent of our customers orders are for healthier kids fare,” the chef, Thomas Costello, said at the time.

President Obama’s decision to put his wife in charge of the battle against childhood obesity is reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s decision to let his wife, Hillary, run the 1993 effort to create national health-care reform. Each greatly enlarged the political persona of both women. But in both cases, neither woman was an expert in the field they were chosen to direct. After months of pushing the health initiative in secret meetings, Hillary appeared at one large gathering of experts in Washington that did allow news media coverage. (Because I covered the meeting as a Washington correspondent, I recall that Mrs. Clinton in her questions and comments revealed her lack of knowledge of critical elements of the health field).

Mrs. Obama has said that the obesity “epidemic” impacts the nation’s security, as obesity is now “one of the most common disqualifiers for military service.” According to a military study it is true that many young men are disqualified for health reasons, including obesity. But many more are turned down for being undereducated or because of criminal records. Many recruiters have worked with overweight applicants to help them trim down to acceptable weight.

“I’m for a free-market solution to obesity,” says Hank Cardello, CEO of 27 Degrees North, a consulting firm that aids food companies link profit and social responsibility. If you have a 10 percent tax on soft drinks, you lower consumption, but “we aren’t solving the obesity issue,” according to research, he said. He suggested giving a bonus or tax credit if a food company reduces calories, not eliminating a tax deduction for advertising, as promoted by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio). “All food has to be perfect all the time” is a draconian stance. “Food ought to be fun.” The attitude that food is “either 100 percent good or it’s poison is extreme.”

Government dictates (such as cutting desserts, substituting water for soft drinks, exercising 60 minutes each day) as called for by Mrs. Obama may be effective deterrents to obesity; but they surely intrude on personal liberty and parental responsibility.

While obesity is widespread and potentially dangerous for America’s children, what huge federal program exists to spotlight leukemia, which kills 44 U.S. children every week; or cystic fibrosis, a most common incurable genetic disorder (one in every 3,000 Caucasian American babies have cystic fibrosis); or Duchenne muscular dystrophy, fatal for kids; or Down syndrome (one in every 800 births in the U.S.) with its intellectual disabilities, heart defects and gastrointestinal malfunctions? No grandiose government programs are in place for these unfortunate children.