Politics & Policy

Federalizing Fat

The first lady learned firsthand that good parenting is the best cure for child obesity; so what's all this about a new government program?

Michelle Obama has recently taken up childhood obesity as one of her major policy priorities. Interviewed about this “epidemic,” the first lady discussed in some detail her own children’s supposed weight problems as an illustration of her personal experience with her new signature issue.

Mrs. Obama revealed that her daughters’ pediatrician had “warned that he was concerned that something was getting off balance.” She then decided that she needed to take a greater role in her children’s nutrition: “Even though I wasn’t exactly sure at that time what I was supposed to do with this information about my children’s BMI [body mass index], I knew that I had to do something.”

After first getting over my complete mortification on behalf of the tween Obama girls, ages eight and eleven, at seeing their weight issues discussed in a national forum, I started to think about their home situation. They are obviously loved, indeed doted on, by their parents and grandmother. The family employs a personal chef, who is himself a leader in the healthy-food and locavore movements, and who often brags about preparing healthy meals for the first family. A look at the weekly lunch menu served at the girls’ school reveals such items as grilled veggie wraps, local squash gratin, natural local rosemary chicken, and local vegetable risotto. And, of course, the Obamas have within the White House a gym, a bowling alley, a basketball court, and an outdoor pool.

Despite all this, the Obama girls’ weight went “off balance.” The first lady took action immediately, making small but significant changes to her daughters’ diets and habits: less television, more colorful vegetables at dinner, more water and low-fat milk. In other words, Mrs. Obama promptly took a greater role in her children’s food decisions. Now, according to her, the girls’ weight is back “on track.”

Good for Mrs. Obama for taking responsibility for her children’s health. Her personal attention to the matter clearly made a difference.

Her decision to embarrass her children by talking about the rather delicate issue of their weight in a national interview was presumably intended to inspire other parents to take a more active role in their children’s food choices. She had presumably learned from her own family’s experience that responsible parenting is the best way to combat childhood obesity.

But apparently the first family’s own success has had no impact on Mrs. Obama’s policy prescriptions. Her solution for the rest of America is more government intervention.

Speaking about the issue during a meeting with cabinet members and congressional leaders, the first lady said: “It’s going to require us working together — not just the administration, but Congress, governors, mayors, parents, teachers. Anyone who has access to children in their lives is going to have to work together. And one of the things that’s also very clear is that this problem won’t be solved by any single federal solution. This is going to require national action.”

Mrs. Obama is certainly correct about one thing: The problem won’t be solved by a federal solution — not even the one she went on to propose.

Although she was murky on the details, the first lady’s new plan involves four basic initiatives. She wants to increase the number of “healthy” schools, and she also wants to increase the number of physical-activity programs made available by them. She hopes to improve the “accessibility and affordability” of food for all Americans. (Apparently, Mrs. Obama is unaware that Americans pay far less for their food than citizens of other nations do, spending only 7 percent of annual income on it, according to a 2009 Department of Labor study.) Lastly, she wants to “empower” consumers to make better food choices — whatever that means.

The first lady made no mention of how much this new initiative will cost, but, according to a 2009 Congressional Research Report, federally funded child-nutrition programs, along with the WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) program, cost American taxpayers $19 billion in 2007. How much more will Mrs. Obama propose we spend to overhaul these programs, especially at a time when her husband is calling for a government-wide spending freeze?

Most children are smart enough to make good decisions for themselves when given guidance and attention from their parents. Considering the vast number of resources available to the Obama girls even before their move to the White House, it’s clear that nothing had a greater impact on these young ladies’ health than their mother’s involvement. When Michelle Obama was advised by the doctor to pay attention to her children’s food decisions, her reaction was that of a concerned parent ready to take responsibility, not a parent looking for a government program to step in.

By all means, let the first lady urge American parents to follow her example and take the lead in making better food choices for their children. Just as parents need to ensure that their children get enough sleep, do their homework, and avoid dangerous activities, they need to teach their children proper eating habits. Parental involvement, not the federal government, is the only long-term cure for childhood obesity — as Mrs. Obama has shown by her example, if not by her policy proposals.

Julie Gunlock is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.

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