The Need for Change

The Obama healthy eating initiative came as a response to the rise in childhood obesity within the USA, and the ensuing medical and social associated consequences.3 School lunches were in no way the sole cause of the problem, but clearly this was one route via which the government could bring about positive adjustments. Studies show that neighbourhood poverty is known to have detrimental health effects, and this is particularly the case for children.4 Robert Putnam points out that obesity is systematically worse in poorer neighbourhoods, and adolescent obesity rates can be tracked via the rate of their parents’ education. In the 1990s, obesity levels rose at a similar rate for all adolescents, as eating meals outside of the home and consumption of processed and fast foods along with sweet beverages had become the norm for many.5 In the past decade, obesity has levelled off for children who come from college-educated households, and the result is a class gap in adolescent obesity in particular. There are a number of factors involved here, and Putnam specifically mentions the advantages more affluent kids accrue from being embedded in a richer transmission network, and hence the healthy eating message is sent and received far more effectively. In comparison, the relative social isolation that lower SES children are exposed to means that they are far more vulnerable to negative messages and threats, and often miss more positive messages.6

Neighbourhood quality is also an important factor, not only in terms of what recreational activities are available, but also in terms of how safe the neighbourhood is likely to be, and what sense of community, if any, there is in the area.7 Exercise is only a sidebar to the main narrative of low SES childhood health, albeit an important one, but the oversimplified message emerged that if children would simply move more, then they could eat whatever they liked.8 The reality is not so straightforward, as the First Lady discovered when she launched her Let’s Move healthy kids campaign in 2010.9

Initially, Michelle Obama’s signature project was well received, by the media and public at least.10 Very soon, the implications of the proposed changes for the Food and Beverage industry became clear. ‘Big Food’ wields mighty influence in Washington and there is a staggering imbalance in government subsidies between the various aspects of the food industry.11 The way in which these subsidies are prioritized impacts every American. A convenient benchmark is offered by the non-profit Public Interest Research Group whose 2011 report concluded that had the government given taxpayers the subsidies instead of to the farmers, each one would have been given $7.36 to spend on junk food and just 11 cents to spend on apples per year.12 This lopsided playing field provided the backdrop for the Obamas’ healthy kids initiative, which faced major systemic challenges from the outset. Unhealthy school lunches had some clear, if superficial, advantages. These were as follows:

  • • Children eat them
  • • School lunch staff appreciate them. Fast food, eaten fast, with little waste
  • • Schools like them, for the above reasons, plus they offered value for money due to heavy government subsidies on fast foods
  • • The Food and Beverage industry was happy to supply daily meals for tens of millions of school children year on year, which guaranteed profit.

First Lady Michelle Obama made youth health and well-being her signature project with the launch of her Let’s Move campaign in 2010.13 Ostensibly, managing the problem of unhealthy, hungry children appeared straightforward. If children are fed nutritious school meals, they benefit in a range of ways, and if consumption of healthier foods is normalized, then over time, eating habits change, the emphasis on junk food will be reduced, children will be healthier, fitter and happier, and everyone wins. Again, the mandate of healthy food and fitness promotion initially appeared to be an uncontroversial one. However, the initiative soon faced a growing tide of opposition from politicians and lobbyists, supported vociferously by sections of the media.14 Mrs. Obama learned very quickly that once the sparkle of her campaign launch had subsided, if her project was to be genuine and viable, she would have to deliver a message that was deeply unpalatable to many—that significant numbers of American children did not have a healthful diet and until they substantially changed their eating habits, all the exercise promotion in the world was not going to save them.15

Those with a stake in what children consumed were not universally impressed.16 The Let’s Move initiative was going to have to be about more than well-meaning suggestions if it was to have any significant impact. The First Lady used the informal influence conferred by her position to full effect in supporting her husband’s efforts to see the HHFK bill become law.17 Could the content of school meals really be so contentious? The answer was a resounding ‘Yes.’ The measure acknowledged the reality that that most children receive the majority of their daily calories from school and many schools offered low-quality fare.18 Fast and cheap was the order of the day.

The Obamas pitched their message clearly on the basis of giving children the best chance for a healthy future by tackling the obesity epidemic and empowering families to help their offsprings perform well in school and life.19 On the First Lady’s Let’s Move Web site, a portal for positive communication and upbeat messages of proactivity, the language was nonetheless clear with regard to the fact that millions of American children were powerless in relation to their food choices.20 For many Americans, the notion of Washington DC, and particularly the Obamas, appearing to instruct individuals about their diet and nutrition seemed to be yet a further example of overexpansive government.21 Nonetheless, the evidence for intervention was strong, and least from a Democratic perspective, the problem was too systemic and widespread to be batted back to citizens as a matter of individual responsibility.

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