Politics & Policy

Let’s Move? Fat Chance

Childhood obesity has declined, but that’s no thanks to the first lady’s initiative.

Has First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign actually reduced childhood obesity rates? That’s a $4.5 billion question whose answer appears to be “No.”

Immediately after announcing that he would “take steps without legislation . . . wherever and whenever I can” in last week’s State of the Union address, President Obama touted First Lady Michelle Obama’s four-year-old Let’s Move campaign as a seemingly unobjectionable and efficacious example of a primarily executive effort that benefits the American people.

“Michelle’s Let’s Move partnership with schools, businesses, and local leaders has helped bring down childhood obesity rates for the first time in 30 years,” the president said.#ad#

“Helped” is the key word there, because the figures the White House is using cover a period of time that barely overlaps with Let’s Move.

The good news is that American kids may have become slightly less porky in the last six years — after a long period of fattening up.

Obesity rates soared in America during the last quarter of the 20th century. From 1976 to 1980, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recorded a 5 percent obesity rate in children aged two to five. That figure jumped to 13.9 percent from 2003 to 2004. For children ages six to eleven, the increase was from 6.5 percent in 1976–80 to 18.8 percent in 2003–04.

Any successful effort to reduce these trends would be a victory for public health. From 2008 to 2011 18 states and the Virgin Islands reported a significant decrease in the prevalence of obesity among low-income preschoolers. Five other states reported a decline of less than one percentage point over the same three years, and in another 21 states and territories there was no significant change in obesity prevalence.

Though most states studied saw no remarkable change, 19 states and territories is no small amount. There has also been notable improvement in America’s major metropolitan areas. Cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles saw declines in childhood obesity of 5.5 percent, 5 percent, and 3 percent, respectively, from 2007 to 2011.

Unfortunately, Let’s Move only existed in the last year of that downward trend.  

Childhood obesity rates began declining among low-income children in 2008, two years before the first lady announced her initiative in early February 2010. The actual implementation of Let’s Move came ten months later, when the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act was passed in December 2010. Obesity rates were well on their current trajectory before Let’s Move had any influence.

Nor does Let’s Move’s influence appear to have been positive. The first lady has undoubtedly raised awareness about childhood healthy eating and exercise through her fame and personal example. But outside of these personal enterprises, almost every governmental initiative of the Let’s Move campaign has been unhelpful or even harmful.

The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act included $4.5 billion in funding for the implementation of nutrition standards in schools while giving the USDA broad-ranging authority to set those standards. The USDA then imposed across-the-board micro-regulations on any school that wanted in on federal funding, including a ban on whole milk and white bread, mandatory vegetable and fruit servings, and even specific maximum calorie counts per meal determined by grade level.

Unsurprisingly, schools from Southern California to New York City dropped the healthy-lunch program because kids were going hungry, choosing to throw out the unappetizing vegetables and low-fat options imposed on them. Healthy-food options were too expensive for many school districts to afford; mandatory calorie limitations left kids wanting more and unable to study; and students roundly complained that the food tasted horrible. Earlier this year, the USDA permanently loosened school-meal rules.

Michelle Obama’s call for “friendly front-of-package labelling” on consumer food products ignores the fact that such labelling has not been proven to influence consumer choices. Some studies have even concluded that mandatory food labeling does nothing to promote healthier food-purchasing behavior. These mandates also place new compliance burdens on producers, increasing costs and reducing productivity.

Another of Let’s Move’s major initiatives was an attempt to increase physical activity among children to 60 minutes of active play a day. However, almost four years since the announcement of Let’s Move, only one-quarter of children ages twelve to 15 exercise an hour a day or more, suggesting that kids aren’t readily responding to the government’s call for more physical activity. It’s not clear that this figure is an improvement from previous years: A 2008 study by the National Institute of Health showed a much higher percentage of 15-year-olds getting an hour of daily exercise.

Despite $4.5 billion in funding for the Let’s Move campaign, USDA hyper-regulations, and multiple executive actions created to influence personal habits, the government has little to show for its efforts. The declining obesity rates the president cites began years before Michelle Obama had any say, and there’s no indication that Let’s Move has greatly helped the process.

— Alec Torres is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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