Michelle Obama photo

Remarks by the First Lady at the Partnership for a Healthier America's Building a Healthier America Summit

May 20, 2016

MRS. OBAMA: Well, hello! (Applause.) All right, this is a fired-up, ready-to-go crowd, right? Absolutely. (Applause.) You all, thank you so much! Rest yourselves, because I hear you've been working all year. (Laughter.)

To say it is a pleasure and an honor to be here with you today is an understatement. I am so thrilled and so proud. And I want to start by thanking Jim, not just for that generous introduction but for his tremendous leadership. He has been amazing. I just got through talking to the board just telling them that I couldn't be more proud of the folks who helped to start this thing.

And I would have to thank Larry Soler as well for his longstanding service and dedication to the PHA, and all the original board members and the folks who came on board. I just want to take a moment to give them all a round of applause, and to congratulate them on their phenomenal accomplishments. (Applause.)

And of course, to the growing staff, one -- there are more than one. Thank you all for doing such great work. Absolutely. (Applause.) And I want to acknowledge our FDA Commissioner, Dr. Robert Califf. And we're pleased that he was able to join us today, so let's give him a round of applause. (Applause.)

And I want to recognize all the folks who have made such outstanding commitments this year to raising a healthier generation, including Westin, and Trinity Health, and Dick's Sporting Goods, and so many others. I got to meet many of them backstage. Thank you. Thank you all for becoming a part of this team. Congratulations on your commitments. (Applause.)

Finally, most of all, I want to thank all of you here. For years, even decades -– long before childhood obesity was ever in the headlines –- so many of you were leading the charge. I spoke to a woman who said she's been working on this issue for 16 years -- leading that charge, creating programs, lobbying for policies, reformulating products, and doing everything you could to raise awareness about this issue.

And since we first launched Let's Move!, PHA has brought together partners like you in more than 50,000 locations across all 50 states. And what you all have achieved in just six years, man, it truly takes my breath away. Let's just look at the stats. I know you all have been talking about it, but I want to go over it again. (Laughter.)

Because of you, 1.6 million kids are now in healthy daycares, eating more than 225 million healthy snacks and meals a year. Those are our babies. We're doing it there. (Applause.) Thirty million kids are eating healthier school breakfasts and lunches. Ten million kids are getting 60 minutes of physical activity at a Let's Move! Active School. They're getting that every day. Eighty million Americans are living in a Let's Move! City, Town or County with summer meal programs, and athletic leagues, and new parks and playgrounds. Eight point one million people in underserved areas finally have somewhere to buy groceries, including 1,000 convenience stores that are now selling fresh food. I love that. (Applause.)

And PHA's FNV campaign to market fruits and vegetables has gotten 1 billion media impressions in just one year. Yes, that's billion. My husband would die for those numbers. (Laughter.) And they say that 70 percent of folks who saw the campaign said they ate more produce as a result. So it's not just idle hits and views; people are actually being impacted.

And today, I am thrilled to announce another new achievement to add to that list -– and it's a big one, as far as I'm concerned. For the first time in 20 years, the FDA has finalized a new and improved nutrition facts label that will be on nearly 800,000 food products nationwide. The calorie count is bigger, bigger font, so you can actually see it. (Laughter.) The serving sizes are more realistic. And, most important of all, this label will tell you how much sugar in your snack was added during processing, and how much of it comes from ingredients like fruit. (Applause.) So very soon -- very soon -- you will no longer need a microscope, a calculator, or a degree in nutrition to figure out whether the food you're buying is actually good for our kids. So that's a phenomenal achievement. (Applause.) And I want to thank everyone at the FDA who worked to get this over the finish line. I hope you all are proud, because this was not easy to do.

These are extraordinary accomplishments. And as I said at the outset, you all should be proud. Because together, you all are truly transforming the way our kids live and eat. And even more importantly, as many of you know from your work on the ground, and contrary to what the naysayers predicted, millions of kids are truly embracing this change.

After all that hand-wringing when we first launched Let's Move! about how kids are picky eaters, and schools wouldn't be able to prepare more nutritious meals that students would actually enjoy, and food manufacturers wouldn't make healthy versions of their products that young consumers would prefer -– remember all that? I do. (Laughter.) Well, after all that, it turns out that kids are even more excited about this stuff than we are. And after six years, it's becoming their new normal. Many of them don't know anything else.

And let me tell you, I see this everywhere I go. I saw it at the Burke County Middle School in rural Georgia. Now, Burke County Schools have a Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Grant Program where they expose their elementary school kids to over 65 fruits and vegetables. And last year, when some of those same students reached middle school, they decided that they wanted to plant their own garden. And now, they're learning math and science lessons from that garden. They're even writing a cookbook for the food they've grown.

And the day I visited, their lunch menu –- which, by the way, like 98 percent of schools nationwide, now meets our healthier meal standards -– (applause) -- yes, indeed. But they were having for lunch local cabbage that was delicious, collard greens, and sweet potatoes. And let me tell you, those kids devoured that food. They were practically licking their plates.

Because, look, their school nutrition team has developed creative recipes for vegetables that kids love. They've done the work. They've also created healthier versions of kids' favorite foods, like everything from barbeque chicken sandwiches with fresh sauce on homemade wheat buns -- homemade buns, all of their buns are homemade -- (laughter) -- baked southern chicken with a garden fresh vegetable cheese casserole that was really good -- they do that instead of mac and cheese. So obviously I tried some of the dishes, and I have to tell you, the food was really good. And you could tell that it was prepared by loving hands, because talking to the men and women who worked in those kitchens, it was important for them to do right by the kids and make that food taste good. That's the kind of healthy food these kids are now used to eating every day.

Kids in urban settings are also embracing this change. I saw it just last month at the Phillip's Academy Charter School in Newark, New Jersey. Now, this is an inner-city school where the kids were bursting with excitement as they showed me the garden they had planted on the rooftop of the school, right in a very urban setting. That garden was their pride and joy. They were showing off their little composting thing. They had their nice little dresses on and they were rolling that pen. (Laughter.) Oh, they were so cute. The eighth graders there had been harvesting and eating those vegetables since first grade. So you see, we're starting to see the growth of these kids who started there.

But after spending time with the kids, pulling worms out of their compost heap -- that was a great shot for the cameras -- (laughter) -- we shared a snack -- and this was their regular snack -- of quinoa protein bars -- handmade, homemade -- with beet smoothies, which, by the way, all those kids gulped down. I wasn't even that keen on the beet smoothie, but they were like, just try it, you'll like it, you'll get used to it. (Laughter.) But this is the kind of food they were eating every day for most of their elementary school years. So they were used to it. This was their normal.

That's the kind of transformation we're seeing in kids all across this country. They're learning through first-hand experience that healthy food can be fun and delicious. And they're making the connection between what they eat and how they feel. In fact, just last week, I'm sure many of you saw the New York Times article about how when schools start teaching students –- particularly their athletes –- about nutrition, kids actually start changing their behavior. And in this article, one young man said he went from eating ice cream and soda every day to having grilled chicken salads and fish because he now understands that his nutrition affects his performance on the playing field.

So when we talk about raising a healthier generation, this is what we mean. And it's happening before our very eyes. Because today, from the time our kids are barely old enough to talk, so many of them are hearing a new set of messages and being exposed to a new set of options around healthy eating. And they are internalizing those messages. They are owning and loving those choices. And as a result, they're developing a set of habits and preferences that will set them on a healthy path for the rest of their lives.

And while it's incredibly exciting that we've had this kind of impact, it's also not all that surprising. Because here's the thing -- ultimately, our children are a reflection of our investment in them, plain and simple. So if we refuse to put in the effort to provide nutritious food for our kids, they will reflect that back in poor health and life outcomes. But if we stand up for what's best for them, if we demand better choices for them and get then excited about those choices, then they will absolutely follow our lead. And then our culture will shift in response to those choices.

And I really want to emphasize that last point about culture change. See, it's no accident that fast-food places are now serving apples and skim milk in their kids' meals, or that food and beverage companies -- including many in the room here today -- have cut 6.4 trillion calories from their products and are racing to stock grocery shelves with healthier options. These companies are simply responding to rapidly changing consumer demands. And that change is happening more quickly than we could have ever imagined.

I mean, just think about it. If six years ago, someone had told you that Fenway Park would have a 5,000 square foot farm on their rooftop to provide fresh produce for their fans -- (applause) -- or that 50 million Americans would visit a government website called MyPlate to learn about healthy eating, or that sales of kale would jump 50 percent in just four years -- (laughter and applause) -- or that the first unanimously chosen NBA MVP, Steph Curry, would choose fruits, vegetables, and water as his primary product endorsements –- (applause) -- if someone had told you all that six years ago, you would have thought they had were out of their minds. But that's the kind of meaningful, tangible change that we're seeing throughout the country.

And I want to be very clear: You all did this, not me. I might have added a little sparkle or publicity -- (laughter) -- but you all did the work. You did the work. You made the commitments. You stepped up.

So the truth is, is that it actually doesn't matter where I'm sitting eight months from now. What matters is that we all keep standing together on behalf of our kids. That's what matters. (Applause.) Because while you all might have felt more empowered these last six years because someone in the White House was excited about this issue, the real power lies with all of the parents and consumers, all the partners –- and, most importantly, all these kids that you all have helped to inspire.

And while next year I will no longer be First Lady, I just want you to know that I will always be here as a partner in this effort -- always. (Applause.)

So I'm not here today to give a victory speech, and these certainly aren't my closing remarks on this issue -- just the opposite. I was passionate about this issue long before I became First Lady, and I plan to work on it long after I leave the White House. Because as far as I'm concerned, everything we've done before today was simply phase one of our work together. That was phase one. (Applause.) And while we have accomplished a lot, we are just getting started.

Yes, it's true that childhood obesity rates have stopped rising for the first time in decades. Yes, it's true that rates are dropping for our youngest kids. But during this first phase, we haven't yet achieved the ultimate change we seek, which is to end our epidemic of childhood obesity once and for all. Instead, what we've done is been laying the groundwork for that change.

We've been finding innovative and inspirational new ways to raise awareness and create new products and build new programs and policies. And if we truly want to achieve our goal, we're going to need to continue and scale up these efforts, and we need to give them time to actually have their intended impact.

We also need to be thinking about the new voices, the champions, the new ideas we can bring to this work. Who's our next Steph Curry? What's the next FNV or Drink Up campaign? We got to keep it moving. (Laughter.) In this next phase, we're going to need to get even more creative, even more innovative. We've got to find new ways to reach these kids in ways they will hear it.

And we're also going to need some patience, real patience, and a whole lot of perseverance. Because as you all know, this is not a trendy issue of the month or even an issue of the year. This is a generational problem. It took us decades to get here, and it's going to take us years to climb our way back. And the only way we can do that is by continuing to focus on one thing and one thing only, and that is doing what's best for our kids.

See, if that is our North Star that guides everything we do, if we focus not just on our profit margins but on how our products affect our kids' health, if we realize that investments in P.E. and recess and nutritious school food are absolutely essential to ensure the success of all of our kids, if we keep pushing our kids at home just to eat their veggies every night, then we can absolutely reach our goal of raising a healthier generation.

So when we encounter folks with an agenda that doesn't include our kids' health, we can't get tired. We can't get frustrated. We can't give up. Because we know that those folks aren't our biggest obstacle. Our biggest obstacle is our own complacency.

And when one in three kids in this country is still overweight or obese; when we're spending billions of dollars treating obesity-related conditions; when four-star generals are sounding the alarm on this issue because they are struggling to recruit young people who can meet the fitness standards of our military -- then the stakes are far too high to back down even for a single second.

So let me end with a quote from Donna Martin. Donna is the Director of the School Nutrition Program for the Burke County Public School System that I talked about earlier. In a blog post that she wrote after my visit, she says: "This is our chance to help mold the future that our children will endure for the rest of their lives. It goes without saying that regardless of political stance, personal or religious beliefs, that is a statement that we can all believe in."

And I couldn't agree more. And that's why I'm in this, and I'm in this for life. I'm in this until we fix this.

So today, I want to ask all of you: Are you in this with me? (Applause.) What's that? Are you all in this? (Applause.) Wait, wait, come on, PHA Summit, are you guys in? Are you ready for this fight? Are you ready to keep adding commitments and building on this success? (Applause.) Because I'm in. I am so far in. We have gotten so much done. (Applause.)

I am so glad to hear that, because we have a lot of work ahead of us, but if we keep coming together and digging deep, and making real investments in our kids' health, then I know we can solve this problem. We're on our way. I know we can give every child in this country the bright future that we know they deserve. I am so grateful to you all. Congratulations for everything you have done and what you will continue to do. Let's roll up our sleeves and keep it going.

Thank you all so much. God bless. (Applause.)

Michelle Obama, Remarks by the First Lady at the Partnership for a Healthier America's Building a Healthier America Summit Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/320861

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