This month last year, First Lady Michelle Obama stood before a crowd of activists, journalists, government leaders, celebrities, and kids gathered in the State Dining Room of the White House to announce a campaign that will ultimately define her—and part of her husband’s—time in Washington, D.C. The announced campaign, christened “Let’s Move!,” would pour as much as $1 billion of federal money over the next decade into reversing the growing epidemic of childhood obesity.
“It’s time for a moment of truth for our country; it’s time we all had a wakeup call,” Obama said at the launch. “Our kids don’t choose to make food products with tons of sugar and sodium in super-sized portions, and then to have those products marketed to them everywhere they turn. And no matter how much they beg for pizza, fries, and candy, ultimately, they are not, and should not, be the ones calling the shots at dinnertime. We’re in charge. We make these decisions.”
One year later, “Let’s Move!” has several celebrity chefs, school districts, and legislators among its supporters. Its leaders have passed legislation through Congress that will bring healthier food to schools across the country and convinced food manufacturers to commit to removing 1.5 trillion calories from their products by 2015.
But one industry remains largely on the outside of the “Let’s Move!” campaign looking in: the quick-service industry.
“We’re looking for leadership from quick-serve restaurants,” says Sam Kass, the senior policy advisor for healthy food initiatives at the White House. “I have no doubt that we’ll see that in the coming months. But there’s no question that we’re really going to need folks in the industry to step up and help us get this initiative where it needs to be.”
If Kass believes industry action is needed to boost “Let’s Move!,” then industry heads should turn. Kass, the Obamas’ private White House chef who was No. 3 on Food & Wine Magazine’s “40 Big Food Thinkers 40 and Under” list in November, is the First Lady’s right-hand man for “Let’s Move!” initiatives.
While Kass credits the restaurant industry as a whole for its efforts to support childhood nutrition—“they realize that there’s a lot more to do, and people are taking this seriously,” he says—the big change he and the First Lady hope to achieve will take more long-term efforts. “You cannot change this overnight because the American palate is used to eating what we’re eating,” Kass says. “So we know that changes have to occur within that context.”
The goal of the campaign is to “solve” childhood obesity within one generation, which, according to a May 2010 report to the President, would reduce the obesity rate in children to 5 percent by 2030. That figure is currently at about 33 percent, making today’s youth the first generation to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.
“We know it’s going to take time,” Kass says. “There’s no question we’ve got to take a long view if we’re going to have real change that’s going to be lasting.”
Four pillars prop up the “Let’s Move!” initiative: Empowering Parents and Caregivers; Healthy Food in Schools; Access to Healthy, Affordable Food; and Increasing Physical Activity.
Much of the campaign is unrelated to the quick-service industry, instead focusing on schools and nutrition education to lead to the vast majority of the change. “We know that there’s nobody raising their kids but parents, and parents have the responsibility to make decisions that are best for their kids,” Kass says.
But with one-third of all calories consumed by Americans coming from outside the home, Obama and Co. know the importance of involving quick serves and the rest of the restaurant industry, especially when it comes to accessing healthy foods at affordable price points.
In fact, it’s the quick-serve industry that often gets blamed for childhood obesity rates, with critics saying chains restrict access to healthy foods for families. Examples of fast food kids’ meals loaded with too much sodium, saturated fat, empty calories, and other unhealthy nutrients are often their evidence.
“There’s been a lot of finger pointing trying to place blame on the cause of this problem,” Kass says. “The First Lady has made very clear that this is not about blame, that she has created a space where anybody who is serious about coming to the table with solutions that we know will have a measurable, lasting, and sustainable impact on the health of kids … have a place here.”
The National Restaurant Association (NRA) has already taken its place at the table. The association is active with the “Let’s Move!” campaign, working with contract foodservice members on the “HealthierUS School Challenge,” in which school lunch providers like Aramark and Sodexo commit to increasing nutritious foods and doubling the amount of produce in school lunches. The NRA also works with the “Chefs Move to Schools” program, in which it pairs schools with chefs who can help educate and develop new school menus.
As of press time, an NRA-backed program that would give restaurants incentives for offering healthier kids’ meals was also in its infancy.
“As an industry, we’re concerned about the health of children in this country,” says Joan McGlockton, vice president of industry affairs and food policy for the NRA. “We aim to please our customers, to the extent that our customers are looking for healthier meals. We’re very consumer-focused, and we’ll try to deliver on that.”
In September, the First Lady spoke at an NRA board meeting to further encourage the industry’s involvement in her efforts to lower obesity rates. In her speech, she referenced that research shows that families eat less-healthy foods when they eat out.
“The choices you make determine what’s listed on the menus, what’s advertised on billboards, and what’s served on our plates,” Obama told a crowd of press and restaurant leaders. “And your decisions about how a dish is prepared, what goes into it, and where it is placed on the menu, that can have a real impact on the way people eat.”
Obama told restaurateurs to “rethink the food” they offer and substitute healthier ingredients in menu staples. She also encouraged operators to put healthier options in more prominent places on menuboards, and to make offerings like apple slices or carrots the default kids’ side, rather than french fries.