First Lady Presses for Action on Childhood Obesity

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Like her estimable husband, when Michelle Obama locks onto a policy-making goal, she doesn’t let it go. The Childhood Obesity Action Plan the First Lady unveiled yesterday represents a significant intensification of the anti-obesity initiative that she launched several weeks ago. And it might give some food and beverage brands even more reason to sit up and take notice.

Brands including Pepsi and Coca-Cola were quick to sign on in February to the First Lady’s “Let’s Move” program, pledging their support.

Her aims then included getting the federal government to spend another $10 billion over 10 years on expansion of the federal school-lunch program and obtaining the outlay of $400 million to encourage grocery stores to carry healthier food selections, especially in “underserved” areas in minority communities.

But now, Mrs. Obama is getting more “personal” to brands, and they aren’t going to like all of it.[more]

For example, she wants the federal government to “revisit” rules on TV advertising aimed at kids. Trouble is, brands from Kraft to Kellogg already have been cutting their commercials of “questionable” foods aimed at kids for years now.

Ditto their likely concerns about another thing the First Lady wants to do: stop retailers from using in-store displays to sell “unhealthy” food items to children.

Although with a seeming sharper edge and a bigger implied threat to force action, the rest of Mrs. Obama’s plan also reads like a hodge-podge of “been there, doing that”: more programs to encourage physical activity in schools, standards for nutrition labeling on the front of packages (which the FDA is taking care of for the First Lady), and the re-evaluation of portion sizes and kids’ menus by restaurant chains.

How long has McDonalds already offered apple slices with Happy Meals? Even Mrs. Obama’s fellow anti-childhood obesity campaigner, British chef Jamie Oliver, says McDonald’s is getting healthier (OK, in his homeland – but it’s a start.)

It’s well and good for major CPG and fast-food brands to keep going along with the First Lady’s initiative for a while. But eventually, they’re going to have to choose between an attitude of support and biting their lips while they try to fight off ever-growing federal, state and local government incursions into their business in the name of thwarting childhood obesity.

Here’s the kicker: Even assuming all of this happens, Let’s Move includes an overall goal of driving obesity rates down by only 5 percent by 2030 – that’s 20 years.

So in exchange for American food, beverage and restaurant companies giving up their freedom to make and market what and how they want – and rather than depending on parents to teach their kids how to eat – we’ll have pulled in the average child’s belt by a single notch over two decades.

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