Michelle Obama photo

Remarks by the First Lady During White House Convening on Food Marketing to Children

September 18, 2013

MRS. OBAMA: Thanks for being here. You guys, as I always say, rest yourselves. You got a lot of work to do. (Laughter.)

Well, welcome to the White House. It is truly a pleasure to be here with all of you today for the first ever White House Convening on Food Marketing to Children.

But before we get started, I just wanted to take a moment to express my sincere heartbreak over Monday's tragedy at the Navy Yard here in Washington. The men and women who lost their lives devoted their careers to protecting our country. And as we mourn those that we lost and we pray for those who were injured, we also honor their service, and we hold all of their loved ones in our hearts at this very difficult time.

So with that, we're going to put you to work. Thank you again for being here. I want to start by thanking Sam for that very kind introduction, but more importantly for all the work that he and his team have done to make Let's Move a reality.

And I want to thank all of you for joining us today.

All of you in this room, you come to this issue from all different angles. You're experts, advocates, parents. You represent food and beverage companies, media and entertainment companies, and so much more. And we're eager to have a lively and constructive dialogue with you about how we market food to our children.

We're eager to hear more from everyone in this room about what's working, where we're falling short, and how we can keep moving forward together on this complex and challenging but very important issue.

And I think it's important to note that we're having this conversation in the midst of what I believe is a cultural shift that is happening in this country -- a transformation in how we live and eat that many of us could never have imagined even just a few years ago. I see it everywhere I go all across this country. I see it in chain restaurants that are serving kale salads, and they're filling kids' menus with not just nuggets and fries, but with broccoli and whole-wheat pasta. I see it in churches where instead of fried chicken and mac and cheese for church supper, they're serving up grilled fish and brown rice.

I see it online where parenting, cooking, and health blogs are crammed with healthy recipes and tips about providing better nutrition for our kids. And I see it in schools where students can't wait to tell me about their new salad bar or how they ate a radish or tried cauliflower for the first time, and actually like it.

In fact, we recently sponsored a recipe contest for kids here at the White House, and we got over 1,300 entries from 50 states across the country, and I can't tell you how many of those recipes featured quinoa. (Laughter.) Go figure.

And if all of this doesn't provide sufficient evidence of an important shift, then just take a look at the market research. The National Restaurant Association surveyed chefs about trends in their industry, and three of the top 10 trends were specifically about healthy kids' meals. A survey by the Food Marketing Institute found that 90 percent of grocery stores are offering healthy recipes to their customers, and 98 percent of them maintain health and wellness websites.

And today, for the first time in decades, we're actually starting to move the needle on this issue. Between 2008 and 2011, obesity rates among low-income preschoolers dropped in 19 states and territories across the country. And childhood obesity rates are falling in cities like New York and Philadelphia, and in states like California and Mississippi.

But while we have made important progress, when one in three kids is still on track to develop diabetes, and when diet has now surpassed smoking as the number one risk factor for disease and death in this country, then we clearly have much more work to do. And, yes, we have made meaningful changes in a number of areas by getting healthier food into our schools and communities, but at the end of the day, if we truly want to solve this problem, we also need to get our kids to actually want to eat these healthier options. And I say this not just as a First Lady who's been working on this issue for the past three and a half years; I say this as a mom who has been working hard to raise two girls.

As you know, I haven't always lived in the White House. (Laughter.) Not so long ago, I was a busy working mom desperate to find quick, affordable meals and snacks for my family. I needed cereal that my girls could pour themselves. I needed lunches I could pack in a hurry. I needed juice boxes that my three-year-old could hold in her hand in the backseat of my car. I needed dinners that came pre-cooked and ready to pop in the microwave. And most importantly, I needed my kids to actually eat all of this food I was buying for them.

And all of you in the food and beverage industry delivered for me. You manufactured and sold the convenience foods I needed, and you did a brilliant job making those foods something my kids would want. So when I opened those boxes and bags, my girls were happy, and I was happy -- problem solved.

But then, like a lot of moms, I started learning more about nutrition and health. I started reading labels. I started getting warnings from my pediatrician about the health of my kids. And I began to realize that some of these foods that were so quick and cheap and tasty weren't always healthy for my kids.

So once again, moms like me turned to your industry for help. But this time, we didn't just want the foods to be convenient and affordable -- we wanted them to be good for our kids as well. And once again, many of you have started to deliver by manufacturing some of the healthier options. And that is an important first step.

But once again, moms like me are relying on all of you to actually help our kids get excited about eating that food. And that's why I wanted to bring all of you together today -- because you guys know better than anyone how to get kids excited. You've done it before, and we need you to do it again. And fortunately you have everything it takes to get this done because through the magic of marketing and advertising, all of you, more than anyone else, have the power to shape our kids' tastes and desires.

You all know that our kids are like little sponges –- they absorb whatever is around them. But they don't yet have the ability to question and analyze what they're told. Instead, they believe just about everything they see and hear, especially if it's on TV. And when the average child is now spending nearly eight hours a day in front of some kind of screen, many of their opinions and preferences are being shaped by the marketing campaigns you all create. And that's where the problem comes in.

You see, the average child watches thousands of food advertisements each year, and 86 percent of these ads are for products loaded with sugar, fat, salt. By contrast, our kids see an average of just one ad a week for healthy products like water to fruits and vegetables. Just one ad a week.

And as you all know, these ads work. Kids who see foods advertised on TV are significantly more likely to ask for them at the store –- a phenomenon known as "pester power." (Laughter.) New to me. Sounds right though. And research shows that a child's first request for a product happens as early as 24 months, and 75 percent of the time, this request takes place in a grocery store.

And given what our kids are seeing on TV, it should come as no surprise what they're asking for. One study revealed that 45 percent of kids' food requests were things like cookies and candy, burgers and fries, and chips, but just 3 percent were for fruits and vegetables. So from the time our kids are still in diapers, we as parents are already fighting an uphill battle to

get them interested in the foods that will actually nourish them and help them grow.

Now, like many parents, Barack and I do our best to limit our daughters' TV time. But as you all know, these ads aren't just on TV. They're on the internet, in video games, smart phones, billboards. They're in schools and store displays. They're everywhere, and parents just can't keep up, no matter how hard we try. So whatever we all might believe about personal responsibility and self-determination, I think we

can agree that it doesn't necessarily apply to children.

I think that we can all agree that parents deserve more control over the products and messages their kids are exposed to. And that's why I was so pleased that 17 major American companies came together on their own as part of the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative to adopt new standards for marketing to kids.

And I know this wasn't easy. Forging consensus among fierce competitors is a challenge to say the least. But these new standards are beginning to have an impact, and I commend all of these companies for taking action.

But of course, while limiting the marketing of unhealthy food is critical, it's not enough. We also need companies to actually market healthy foods to kids -– foods that have real

nutritional value, foods that are fortified with real fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy. Now, I say this mindful that companies exist to make a profit, and they need that in order to survive. And those profits keep our economy going every day.

But 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, the folks at 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. Vidalia Onion did a campaign with "Shrek" -- one of my favorites -- and their sales went up 50 percent. So I'm confident that you all can sell healthy foods to our kids and remain competitive and profitable.

That's why some of your companies' marketers are playing a key role in a new campaign to inspire people in this country to drink more water. You see, we know that water is such an important component to good health, but so many other beverages have millions of marketing dollars behind them that water often gets drowned out. That's why last week, we launched the new Drink Up campaign -- a campaign to bring attention to water as a healthy choice so that when people are thirsty, they reach for a glass of water. So I say this because when it comes to believing in the power of marketing to promote healthy choices to our kids, I'm not just talking the talk, I'm actually walking the walk on this one.

But so far, I've spent a lot of time talking about food and beverage companies. But those of you from media companies also play a critical role in marketing food to our children, and I want to call on all of you to do your part as well. That means, for example, limiting the use of your licensed characters to market unhealthy food to kids, and limiting unhealthy food ads in your programming.

Disney has pledged to do just that, and I know that other media companies can follow suit. But I'm also asking you to actually use your licensed characters to promote healthy food. "Sesame Street" has been doing this for years, which is why, when parents turn on "Sesame Street" or the Disney Channel, they know and trust that their kids won't be bombarded with messages promoting unhealthy food.

And that trust is valuable. That trust is good for your businesses. That's why so many of you in the private sector are leading the way on this issue. You are innovating. You're taking risks. You're serving as models for your industries, and it's starting to make a difference -- not just for our kids, but for your shareholders as well.

And I'm here today with one simple request -- and that is to do even more and move even faster to market responsibly to our kids. Now, I want to be clear about what I'm asking here. I am not asking anyone to take the fun out of childhood. As we all know, treats are one of the best parts of being a kid. Instead, the goal here is to empower parents instead of undermining them as they try to make healthier choices for their families. And we need you to lead the way in creating demand for healthy foods so that kids actually start "pestering" us for those foods in the grocery store. And then parents actually start buying them, and then companies have incentives to make and sell even more of those foods.

And ideally, in a decade or so, we would see a dramatic shift across the entire industry. We'd see companies shifting marketing dollars away from those less healthy products and investing those dollars in your healthier products instead. That's how we can make healthy eating a way of life for our kids and for our families. And make no mistake about it, meeting these goals isn't just the right decision for the short or medium term; it can affect your businesses for decades to come.

See, the decisions that you make about marketing won't just affect what our kids are eating today -- those decisions are going to also affect the health of your workforce tomorrow. Businesses are losing $37 [$73] billion a year due to absenteeism, lost productivity, and health care costs associated with obesity-related conditions. And just imagine what that number will look like in twenty years from now if we stand by and let today's unhealthy kids grow into unhealthy adults who become the employees of tomorrow.

And there's another long-term factor that's also worth considering, and that is the potential trend in our kids' food preferences and taste. You see, over the past few years, we've seen some real changes in the foods our kids are eating,

starting from the time they're born. For example, changes in the Women, Infants and Children Program are helping millions of women across America buy healthier products for their kids. And 10,000 childcare centers across the country have committed to serving more nutritious food as part of Let's Move Childcare.

In addition, we have implemented sweeping changes in America's school lunch program, such that nearly 32 million children across the country are now eating more fruits, and vegetables, whole grains, and other healthy foods every day. And starting next year, school vending machines will be stocked with healthy items as well.

So healthier eating is starting to become the new norm for our kids. This is what they're getting used to, and for many, this is all they'll ever know. And as their palates and their habits adjust, that could have a serious effect on their taste and preferences not just as children, but for the rest of their lives. It could even affect what they ultimately buy and serve their own children in the future. So this isn't just some passing trend or fad.

So there might be those out there whose strategy is to just wait this out -- folks who might still be thinking to themselves, well, in a few years, this lady will be gone -- (laughter) -- and this whole Let's Move thing will finally be over, so we can go back to business as usual. And I know that none of you here are thinking that way. (Laughter.) But if you know anyone who is -- (laughter) -- you might want to remind them that I didn't create this issue, and it's not going to go away three and a half years from now when I'm no longer First Lady.

This issue has truly taken on a life of its own because it is affecting just about every family and every community in this country. Parents are increasingly anxious as they see their kids developing diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure -- conditions that would have been unthinkable to find in children just a generation ago. There are now 79 million pre-diabetics in this county, many of them young adults, and we're

even seeing people in their twenties and thirties having heart attacks and strokes.

So I have yet to meet a single parent who doesn't understand the threat of obesity to their health and to their children's health. And they are looking for solutions. They're starting to think about how they feed themselves and their families. And you all can take advantage of this. You can get ahead of the curve. You have everything it takes right now to seize this societal challenge as an unprecedented business opportunity. Right now, your companies employ some of the most brilliant, creative, innovative minds in the entire country. And you all can sell just about anything to our kids. And if anyone can get our kids to eat their vegetables, it's all of you.

And I know it won't be easy. I know you might have to take some short-term risks to get a long-term payoff. But that's what great American companies do -- they act boldly, they innovate, they take risks. And remember, it wasn't that long ago that "going green" or taking your business online were considered risky endeavors. But throughout our history, the companies that saw where the future was headed and took that leap have been rewarded.

And I want you to know that I will do everything in my power to celebrate and highlight this kind of leadership on behalf of our kids. That's what I've been doing since I first started working on this issue, whether it was visiting a

Walmart stocked with fresh produce, or having dinner at an Olive Garden with a healthier kids menu, or hanging out with Mickey to celebrate Disney's achievements on this issue. And I am eager to have these kinds of celebrations with every company in this room.

So I hope that all of you will really engage. I hope that you'll really talk to each other, and learn from each other, and come up with new solutions that will make a real difference for our kids. We want to hear from everyone involved in this issue -- from industry leaders to advocates to researchers and to parents -- because we're all in this together.

And while I know I've been talking a lot about corporate America's responsibilities on this issue, the advocates and experts here today have an important responsibility too. Your words matter. You all can help either provide incentives to change, or you can be barriers to change. So we need you to be constructive in your criticisms and strategic in your calls to action, because when it comes to marketing, it can be hard for companies to take risks. They face pressures from Wall Street. There are also limits to how fast they can move and how far they can go before they start losing customers.

So when companies do step up and take risks, we need to be supportive, even if we think they haven't gone far enough. We need to help them make those risks pay off, so that they'll go even farther, and so that other companies will follow their lead.

And as for those of you in the private sector, I hope that you will head back to your companies ready to think big and act boldly on behalf of our kids because while running a profitable business is important, I know that you all aren't just business executives. You all are also good neighbors, and good citizens, and proud parents and grandparents. Many of you didn't go into business just to make money, but to problem solve and make people's lives better. You went into business to create great American products and build great American institutions, and to leave a legacy that your kids and grandkids will inherit with pride.

And in the end, that's what Let's Move is all about. It's about the legacy we're leaving for the next generation and generations to come. And standing here today with all of you, people who represent some of the most visionary, pioneering companies and organizations in this country, I have never felt more confident about our children's future and, of course, the future of this country.

So I look forward to hearing about what you all come up with today, and I look forward to celebrating new commitments and achievements in the months and years ahead.

Thank you all. God bless you. Good luck and work hard. (Applause.)

Michelle Obama, Remarks by the First Lady During White House Convening on Food Marketing to Children Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/320139

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