Michelle Obama photo

Remarks by the First Lady at the School Nutrition Association Conference

March 01, 2010

MRS. OBAMA: Thank you. (Applause.) Thanks so much, everyone. Please, sit. (Applause.) Thank you. It is such a pleasure to be here with all of you. Thanks so much for that warm welcome.

And I also want to thank Dora for that kind introduction and for your outstanding leadership of the School Nutrition Association.

And I want to thank all of you here today for the terrific work that you're doing every day all across this country.

And I know that you always don't get a lot of credit and recognition for what you do -- and you deserve it. You know, there are not a lot of newspaper headlines about how the meals you serve are the only food that many kids may get all day long. People on TV don't talk much about how kids who participate in the school meal program perform better in class and they miss fewer days of school. And a lot of folks still don't understand how the cafeteria is actually one of the most important classrooms in the entire school -- (applause) -- because what you all know is that our kids don't stop learning at lunchtime.

Every day, with the food you serve, you're teaching them these critical lessons about nutrition and healthy eating. You're shaping their habits and their preferences, and you're affecting the choices that they're going to make for the rest of their lives.

So now just multiply that by the 31 million kids in the school meal program, and it's clear that all of you don't just shape the future of individual students; you help to shape the future of this country.

And that's been the case since the National School Lunch Program was first started by President Truman after World War II, back when one of the most common disqualifiers for military service was malnourishment, if you can believe that.

And that's why President Johnson later in 1966 expanded the program to include school breakfasts and meals at preschools because, as he put it, he said that "good nutrition is essential to good learning."

So whether it's national security, education or child hunger, for decades we've looked to you for help in achieving our most urgent national priorities.

And that's really why I'm here today -– because once again today we're going to need your help with a crisis that we face in our own time: and that's the epidemic of childhood obesity in America today.

And you all know the statistics –- how nearly one in three kids in this country is overweight or obese. And you all see the impact on the kids that you work with. You see firsthand kids who are struggling to keep up with their classmates, or worse yet they're stuck on the sidelines because they can't participate. You see how kids are teased or bullied. You see kids who physically don't feel good, and they don't feel good about themselves. You see kids who are at higher risk of conditions like diabetes, and cancer, and heart disease -– conditions that cost billions of dollars a year to treat.

And by the way, today, one of the most common disqualifiers for military service is actually obesity.

Now, those of you who've been in this business a while, you know that this wasn't always the case. Things weren't always this way. I know you may remember a time when kids in your schools led lives that kept most of them at a healthy weight. They walked to and from school, they ran around during recess and gym class, and they played outside for hours after school. Many could -- kids ate home-cooked meals, and many had actually seen fruits and vegetables before you served them to them -- (laughter) -- so they didn't look at them like foreign objects when they got them at school. (Laughter.) Fast food, soda and candy were special treats; they weren't part of every meal. And at lunchtime, in many schools, kids just had two choices: either what you served them, or what their mom or dad packed at home, whether they liked it or not.

But over the past few decades, we've seen these healthy habits falling away, replaced by habits of convenience and necessity. You know, parents want to buy healthy food for their kids, but they're sometimes tight on money and can't afford it. Or they're tight on time because they're juggling extra jobs, extra shifts, and they just can't swing those home-cooked meals anymore. Those walks to school have been replaced with buses or car rides. And as you know, gym class and school sports have been cut in so many places, replaced by afternoons with the TV, video games, and the Internet.

And those two reasonably healthy choices at lunchtime, they've become dozens of choices –- some healthy and some not. That occurs as schools struggle to get the revenue that they need. From fast food, to vending machines packed with chips and candy, to a la carte lines, we tempt our kids with all kinds of unhealthy choices every day. And it's no surprise that they don't always pick the healthy ones.

And by now, I think it's clear that between the pressures of today's economy and the breakneck pace of modern life, the well-being of our kids has too often gotten lost in the shuffle.

But we have to be honest: Our kids didn't do this to themselves. You see, our kids don't decide what to serve -- or what is sold at lunch. Our kids don't decide whether there's time for recess and gym. They don't decide whether they'll learn about healthy eating or nutrition at school. They don't make these decisions.

We set those priorities. We make those decisions. And even if it doesn't always feel like it, we are the ones in charge. But that's the good news -- because if we make the decisions, then we can decide to solve this problem.

And that's precisely what many of you are already doing right now in schools all across this country.

Anji Baumann, the Child Nutrition Director for Gooding, Idaho, she has local farmers grow fresh fruits and vegetables specifically for her school district. And I hear her staff makes many foods from scratch –- including spaghetti and baked goods. In fact, they even came up with a recipe that uses pureed beans as a substitute for some of the oil in chocolate cake –- and it was so tasty that none of the students even noticed.

In Binghamton, New York, I hear they held a health fair to celebrate when six of the city's seven elementary schools reached Gold status in the Healthier US School Challenge. Wonderful. (Applause.) And they celebrated with kids proudly displaying the school -- their nutrition projects. And the whole community got involved -- the local hospital, Boys and Girls Clubs, the USDA office, and others -- they all sponsored booths with information on healthy living.

And in Jackson, Mississippi, thanks to the encouragement of the Executive Director of Food Services, Mary Hill, the superintendent now requires elementary school teachers to eat meals with their students. (Applause.) And as you can imagine, with teachers sitting at the table -– both encouraging kids to eat fruits and vegetables, and eating them themselves –- fruit and vegetable consumption has gone up there.

And I'm going to be visiting Jackson on Wednesday, and I am looking forward -- (applause) -- I'm looking forward to seeing Mary and hearing more about what she's doing. And I'm hoping to come to your areas, too.

Every day, in communities across this country, you all are proving that if we're creative and resourceful, if we meet this challenge with determination and commitment, then we can take back control; and we can turn back the tide; and we can give our kids the lives that we know they deserve.

That's why earlier this month we launched Let's Move. It's a nationwide campaign to help our kids lead active, healthy lives right from the beginning.

And we've issued a call to action. We are telling people, let's get going, let's move to help families and communities make healthier decisions -- uh oh -- (laughter) -- not meaning to call you out or anything -- (laughter) - but leave it to the press, they're just -- (laughter.) We have to move to help parents make healthier choices for their kids. And we have to move to get the community together -- governors, mayors, doctors, nurses, everyone -- to tackle this challenge once and for all.

And we have to move. Let's move to rally this country around a single, ambitious goal -- and that is to solve the problem of childhood obesity in a generation so that kids born today reach adulthood at a healthy weight. (Applause.)

And we've already created the first ever government-wide task force on childhood obesity. It's composed of Cabinet secretaries and senior administration officials. And over the next 90 days, they're working fast and furious. They're going to review every government program relating to child nutrition and fitness. And they'll develop a national action plan to not just maximize those resources, but make recommendations that the public and private sectors can take to move this ahead. They'll also lay out concrete benchmarks to measure our success and to hold us all accountable for meeting our goal.

But we are not going to wait for 90 days to get to work here. We've already gotten started on a series of wonderful initiatives to achieve our goal.

The first: Let's move to offer parents the tools and information they need to make healthy choices for their kids.

You know, so many parents, they want to do the right thing, but they're bombarded with all this conflicting information, and they don't know who or what to believe or where to start. So we've started a Web site –- letsmove.gov -– that's going to provide helpful tips and step-by-step strategies for parents.

In addition, we're working with our doctors, encouraging pediatricians and family doctors to screen kids for obesity and actually work with parents to write out a prescription for the steps they can take to address the problem.

We're also working with the FDA and the food industry to make our food labels more customer-friendly so parents won't have to spend hours squinting at words that they can't pronounce to figure out whether the foods that they're buying are healthy or not.

And that brings me to the second part of this initiative: Let's move to ensure that all our families actually have access to the foods -- the healthy foods that they need in their own communities, because right now, 23.5 million Americans, including 6.5 million children, live in what we call food deserts, and these are areas without access to a supermarket. And as a result, what happens in those communities is that families wind up buying their groceries at a local gas station or a convenience store, places that offer few, if any, healthy options.

So we've set an ambitious goal in this area: to eliminate food deserts in America within seven years. (Applause.) And to achieve this goal, we've created a Healthy Food Financing Initiative that's going to invest $400 million a year –- and leverage hundreds of millions more from the private sector -– to bring grocery stores to underserved areas and to help places like convenience stores carry healthier food options.

But we know that healthy eating is only half the battle. Experts recommend at least 60 minutes of daily activity. But we all know that many kids don't even come close to that. So let's move –- and I say that and mean that literally. We have to move to find new ways for our kids to be physically active. And that's the third piece of this initiative.

Our work here includes expanding and modernizing the President's Physical Fitness Challenge. And we've recruited professional athletes from dozens of different sports leagues –- like the NFL, Major League Baseball, the WNBA, and many, many more –- and they're going to work with us to encourage kids to get and stay active.

But here's the thing: We can help kids eat better at home, and we can help them be more active both in and out of school, but the fact remains that kids who participate in school meal programs get roughly half of their calories each day at school. So that means that all of you have as much influence on what our kids eat each day as their parents do.

And think about that for a minute. This is an extraordinary responsibility. But it's also an opportunity. And it's why one of the single most important things we can do to fight childhood obesity is to make those meals at school as healthy and nutritious as possible.

So let's move to help all of you get healthier food into our school. That's the fourth and final part of the initiative.

And we're going to start by working to dramatically increase the number of schools that meet the Healthier US School challenge. Those are schools that provide healthy meals, offer physical education and nutrition education, and ensure that children receive the free and reduced price meals that they're eligible for. These schools that meet the standard, they are the gold standard. They're the model of what we want for every school in America.

Now, I know that it's not going to be easy to meet this challenge, because I know the kind of constraints that all of you are under in this era of budget cuts when you're constantly pushed to do more with less. And I think that if the average person -- if you asked the average person to do what you have to do every day, and that is to prepare a meal for hundreds of hungry kids with just $2.68 a child -– with only $1.00 to $1.25 of that money going to the food itself –- they would look at you like you were crazy. (Laughter and applause.) That's sad, but that's less than what many folks spend on a cup of coffee in the morning. So we're going to have to do everything we can to help you.

Right now, we're hard at work updating and strengthening the Child Nutrition Act to give you more of the resources that you need to do your jobs. And Secretary Vilsack, the Secretary of Agriculture, is taking the lead. He's doing a wonderful job. And we've proposed a historic new investment of an additional $10 billion over the next 10 years.

And I'm pleased that just last week, 66 retired generals, admirals, and other senior military leaders -– including two former Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -– sent a letter to Congress in support of these efforts. And that's amazing. (Applause.)

Our goals here are very simple: We want to get rid of the unnecessary paperwork that keeps so many eligible kids from participating in the school meal programs –- (applause) -- and if we can do that, we can increase enrollment in the school breakfast program so that we can serve an additional 1 million kids in the first five years alone. (Applause.)

But we also want to improve the quality of food in our schools, increasing reimbursements so that you can add more fruits and vegetables and whole grains, and decrease sugar, fat and salt.

We also want to get healthier food into those vending machines too –- which, by the way, has actually meant increased revenues for schools in Kentucky and Maine and elsewhere.

We also want to help you purchase the equipment that you need so that you can start phasing out those fryers and phasing in new ovens and salad bars and serving lines. (Applause.)

And we want you all to have better training and professional development opportunities so that you know all of the latest research and the best techniques.

Now, all of this is going to help. But while we can pass better legislation and invest more money, at the end of the day, when it comes to making a school a healthy school, you all know that you're where the rubber meets the road, because you know better than anyone what our kids will eat and what they'll throw away. You know what it takes to make them finally –- if even only reluctantly -– try something new. And the training and mentoring that you provide, the contracts you negotiate, the decisions that you make about what to serve –- that's what really matters here. That's what really makes the difference.

So let me tell you I am just thrilled that you all have agreed to work with us to meet the goals of Let's Move, because we're going to need everything that you've got. We're going to need your best initiatives. We're going to need your ideas, both big and small, because in fact, as you know, it's often the small things that make the difference here.

For example, switching from 2 percent to 1 percent milk, that could mean 20 fewer calories. Switching from fruit served in heavy syrup to fruit served in light syrup or juice could mean another 13 calories. Substituting low-fat or non-fat salad dressing could be nearly 50 more calories. And little changes that cut 20 calories here, 30 calories there –- all of that can add up to the hundreds of calories a week for kids. And over the course of a year, for some kids, that can mean the difference between being at a healthy weight or not.

But fighting childhood obesity isn't just about the food you serve in your lunchrooms. It's about the leadership you show in your schools and in your communities. It's about your work as advocates and educators in your own right.

It could mean reaching out to parents -– posting school menus online, or providing family-sized recipes, so that they can try the foods you serve at home. It could mean working with kids, having them do taste tests, or forming a student nutrition group to advise you on what to do for them. It could mean working with teachers and giving them healthy eating tips that they can share with their students. Or educating administrators about the value of programs like the Healthier US Schools program.

And it always means, as you know, reaching out to the community at large –- partnering with local farmers and food suppliers to get better food and better deals; speaking to community groups like the PTA or the Chamber of Commerce about the work that you're doing and what they can do to help you.

But let's be clear: This isn't your responsibility alone. We all have a role to play here, and the only way we're going to solve this problem is by working together, because you all can give our kids the healthiest school meals imaginable, but if there's no supermarket in their community and they're eating unhealthy food at home, then they still won't have a healthy diet.

And we can build all the shiny new supermarkets on every block in this country, but if parents don't have the information they need, they'll still struggle to make healthy choices for their kids. And then if kids aren't active, then no matter how well we feed them, they still won't be leading healthy lives.

That's why I've met with so many people over the course of the past few weeks -- with mayors and governors -- asking them to do their part to build healthier cities and states.

That's why I've met with parents, asking them to do their part to make healthier choices for their families.

That's why I'll be meeting with the food manufacturers in the Grocery Manufacturers Association, calling on them to offer healthier options.

And that's why we need more folks from the private sector to step up: from school food suppliers improving the quality of their food, to retailers understanding that what's good for kids and families can actually be good business, too.

And that's why I'm here with all of you, because you all have a vitally important role to play in this effort.

See, I think President Truman put it best -- I've said this before -- nearly 65 years ago in a statement to the first national conference of state school lunch officials that read, and this is a quote, he said to them, "To you who carry out the program locally falls the crucial job of seeing to it that we build well for the future." That we build well for the future.

And in the end, that's what this is all about –- ensuring that we build well for the future. Ensuring that our kids are ready to learn, that they're ready to serve their country, that they're ready to make healthy decisions for the rest of their lives. It's about ensuring that our kids have the energy and the endurance to succeed in school, to pursue the careers of their dream, and believe it or not, to keep up with their own kids, if they're blessed, and to live to see their grandkids grow up, and if they're lucky, maybe even their great grandkids too. That's why we're doing this.

So let's act. Let's move. And let's do everything that we can to give our kids the future that we want for them and we know they deserve. (Applause.) So I thank you all for your work and for your continued success. We are so very proud of you. Thank you all. Thanks so much. (Applause.)

Michelle Obama, Remarks by the First Lady at the School Nutrition Association Conference Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/320610

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