First lady addresses NAACP convention, touts healthy eating for kids
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — First lady Michelle Obama still recalls that little brown paper bag from her childhood. It was stuffed with penny candy from the corner store and hidden under her bed.
"You didn't eat it all at once because you never knew when you'd see another piece of candy," she told those attending the NAACP convention in Kansas City on Monday.
That bag, she said, would be "all worn out and sweaty," emptied gradually over days.
But times have changed, the first lady added, and so have eating and exercise habits for the nation's kids. Instead of walking to school — she joked that she trekked barefoot even during Chicago winters — children are driven. Instead of playing outside, many spend hours in front of TV sets.
And instead of eating healthy foods, some are eating so much junk that the nation is experiencing an epidemic of obesity that is robbing those children of productive futures.
Today's young people could become the "first generation in history that might be on track to live shorter lives than their parents," Obama said, noting that one in three is overweight or obese.
Nearly half of African-American children will develop diabetes, experts predict.
"And if we don't do something to reverse this trend right now, our kids won't be in any shape to continue the work begun by the founders of this great organization," she said. "They won't be in any condition to confront all those challenges that we know still remain.
"So we need to take this issue seriously, as seriously as improving under-achieving schools, as seriously as eliminating youth violence or stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS or any of the other issues that we know are devastating our communities."
That's why she said she launched her "Let's Move" initiative (www.letsmove.gov) aimed at highlighting the issue. She's started a produce garden at the White House, and she showcased the importance of exercise, a move that has sparked such headlines as "How to get Michelle Obama's toned arms."
Another goal of the campaign is to eliminate "food deserts" in poorer neighborhoods underserved by major supermarkets. She said nearly 24 million Americans live in such areas, and many wind up spending more for lesser-quality food at convenience stores and gas stations.
The "Let's Move" campaign includes a call for a $400 million a year government fund that will be used as seed capital to attract grocery stores to food deserts.
"Our goal is ambitious," Obama said. "We want to eliminate food deserts in this country within seven years and create jobs and revitalize neighborhoods along the way."
The first lady's 35-minute address had convention delegates on their feet more than once and will likely rank as one of the highlights during the NAACP's week-long convention in Kansas City.
That the first lady appeared instead of President Barack Obama had generated some pre-convention grumbling. But on Monday, delegates said they were happy to see the first lady.
"He's addressed this convention before," Kathy Sykes of Jackson, Miss., said of the president. "It's an added treat for us to hear from the first lady. She's just as intelligent as he is."
NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous pointed out that "the NAACP is led by women. To have the first chance as an organization to hear from the first lady, somebody who grew up just like so many of us here, was huge."
In addition to eliminating food deserts, Obama said her "Let's Move" campaign is pushing for easier-to-understand food labeling, "so folks don't have to spend hours squinting at labels, trying to figure out whether the food they're buying is healthy or not."
Doctors, she said, also are being urged to routinely screen for obesity among their young patients. The screenings have made a difference in the first family's life, she pointed out.
"It wasn't that long ago when the Obamas weren't exactly eating as healthy as we should have been," the first lady said. "And it was our daughters' pediatrician who actually pulled us aside and suggested that I think about making some changes to our family's diet.
"And it made a world of differences."
"Let's Move" also will focus on introducing healthier food into the nation's public schools. The idea: less sugar, salt and fat and more vegetables, fruits and whole grains.
Another component: getting children to exercise more at home and at school with more regular gym classes and recesses.
"We've set a goal of increasing the number of kids who walk or ride their bikes to school by 50 percent in the next five years," she said.
Families have to assume responsibility, she told convention goers. Ditch the soda for water.
"Kids won't like it at first, trust me," Obama said. "But they'll grow to like it."
"As I tell my kids, dessert is not a right."