Remarks by the First Lady to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute
10:29 A.M. EDT
MRS. OBAMA: Thank you so much, truly. (Applause.) Everyone, please. Thank you so much. Good morning.
AUDIENCE: Good morning!
MRS. OBAMA: Let me tell you, I am as thrilled to be here as you all sound. (Laughter.) I’m really honored. And I’d like to thank the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and CHCI for inviting me to come speak at your policy conference today. I know you’ve had a wonderful discussion, and I’m honored to be here.
Let me begin by first recognizing Secretary Sebelius. I know she was here, but she has just done a tremendous job for the administration. I want to recognize and thank all the members of the panel for their work and their contributions today. And of course Representative Nydia Velasquez for -- yes -- (applause) -- for all that she does for the Hispanic Caucus and all that she’s done on behalf of this President. Thank you so much. And of course, CHCI’s Executive Director, Esther Aguilera. Let’s give her a round of applause for her hard work. (Applause.)
And finally, I’d like to thank all of you, not just for being here today, but for what you do every day for the Hispanic community and for America as a whole.
Whether you’re a member of Congress, a local elected official, a CHCI alum, policy expert, or a community leader, I know that because you’re here, you’ve done so much for these communities, you care about the future of not just this community but of this country.
For more than 30 years, CHCI has been fighting for that future. With your scholarships, and fellowships, and career programs, you’re grooming the next generation of great American leaders. I got to meet some of them backstage.
You’re building a brighter future not just for our young people, but for all of us, because we all benefit from their talent, and their promise, and the contributions that they’re going to make to our nation. So let’s give them all a round of applause, as well, truly. (Applause.) We are so very proud of you all. (Applause.)
And now more than ever before, we need forward-looking individuals and organizations just like all of you here in this room, because tomorrow, while it brings such great promise, it also brings a host of new challenges, as well.
And I’m here today because I want to talk about one of those challenges. It’s an issue that keeps me up at night not just as First Lady, but as a mother –- and that is the health of our children, in particular, the epidemic of childhood obesity in America today.
Now, we all know this is a serious problem in every single community in this country. But like with so many of the other challenges we face today, communities of colors have been hit especially hard. Nearly two in five Hispanic children are overweight or obese. And this isn’t just teenagers or school-age kids that we’re talking about. Believe it or not, the obesity rate among Hispanic preschoolers is higher than their white or African American peers.
And we all know what this means for their overall health. We all know the links between obesity and cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
But we also know that childhood obesity is not a stand-alone problem. We know that it is bound up in just about every other issue that we face. It is about health care. It’s about education, economic opportunity. It’s about how our food is processed, and how our cities are designed, how our children spend each day in school. It’s about the restaurants where we eat, and the grocery stores where we shop, and the decisions we make for our children every single day: decisions about how much time they spend with TV and video games, as opposed to running around outside; decisions about what they eat, how much of it, and how often. So we all have a stake in this problem. And we all have a role in finding a solution.
And that’s why, earlier this year, we launched “Let’s Move!” “Let’s Move” is a nationwide campaign with one ambitious goal, and that’s to solve the problem of childhood obesity in a generation, so that kids born today can reach adulthood at a healthy weight.
And we’ve set a series of goals and benchmarks that we need to meet in order to reach our larger goal: everything from getting better food into our schools, to getting more grocery stores into our communities, to getting our kids up and moving, both at home and at school.
But every single one of you here in this room knows that government alone cannot solve this problem.
See, as you know, here in Washington, we can help a bit. We can help coordinate efforts, we can marshal resources, we can help raise awareness and get people engaged.
But at the end of the day, when it comes time to act, when it comes time to actually make the changes that will make our kids healthier, it’s going to take folks like you -- leaders in our community, folks who do the hard work on the ground to actually make the changes that will make a difference in our children’s lives.
So I'm here today not just to talk with you about the problem, but to ask for your help in solving it. And that starts in our own communities, because we know that if we want to raise healthy kids, we need to build healthy communities first. And it means asking ourselves some questions, like are there parks and playgrounds where our kids can run around and play? Are there sidewalks or bike paths that let them walk or ride to school safely? Are there grocery stores that sell healthy food that is affordable that parents can actually buy?
We need every single one of you to help answer these questions. And that means bringing all the stakeholders to the table, not just doctors and educators but restaurant owners and policy makers; folks from the park and recreation department -- anyone who might have some role to play in being part of the solution.
And that’s what folks are doing right now out in San Antonio.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yeah!
MRS. OBAMA: Yeah, shout-out for San Antonio. (Laughter and applause.) You all are doing some good things. There, the Metropolitan Health District brought together people from all across the community to form a task force to tackle obesity. And this spring their mayor, Julián Castro, formed a city-wide fitness council that includes everyone from business leaders, to a university professor, to a former Dallas Cowboy. And they’re giving away bikes to families. They’re changing their physical education curriculum. They’re encouraging restaurants to include more healthy options on their menu. And they are providing free access to fitness facilities.
Now, San Antonio is doing this with the help of a grant from the Recovery Act. Yay. (Laughter and applause.) But you don’t need a grant to take another look at what kids are doing in gym class. You don’t need a grant to take high-calorie soda out of vending machines, or to tell families to get kids screened for obesity at their checkups.
It doesn’t cost any money to convince a local chef to join our Chefs Move to Schools program. Now, this is a program we started to bring chefs into our schools and help schools prepare healthier food for our kids.
In fact, when I think about it, given this organization’s longstanding focus on education, schools may very well be a perfect place for you all to focus your energy.
And I know that many of you have been following the Child Nutrition legislation that is currently before Congress. This legislation helps make critical investments to provide better-quality meals to more of our children so that they can get the nutrition that they need to succeed.
Now, this is a bipartisan effort supported by folks on both sides of the aisle, and it’s already passed the Senate. And I hope that the House of Representatives will act on this legislation by the end of this month so that we can get this bill signed into law.
But like always, there is plenty to do outside of Washington as well. Now, how about working to sign up schools in your community for the Healthier US School Challenge? This program recognizes schools that are doing the very best work to keep kids healthy -- from providing nutritious school meals to requiring regular physical education classes.
Hollin Meadows Elementary School is a school right here in Alexandria, Virginia. It’s a perfect example. Now, this is a school where multiple languages are spoken and almost 50 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. Nonetheless, they earned a Silver award in this challenge.
And I had a chance to visit this school last fall, and the school’s principal and the parents told me about how the steps they took to make kids healthier -- something as simple as extending recess by 10 minutes -- has improved not just their health but their academic performance as well.
Now, we’ve set a goal of doubling the number of schools that participate in this challenge by June of next year. And now we’re trying to sweeten the pot a bit by adding monetary incentives for award-winning schools. And I'll be inviting representatives from each school to come to the White House for a reception in their honor. So hopefully that’s something useful. (Laughter and applause.)
But we need your help to get even more schools involved. Now, that might mean raising money to install a salad bar in a lunchroom in your community. It might mean planting a school garden and getting out there and getting a little dirty. Or it might mean promoting other efforts to get kids active, like making a commitment to enroll a certain number of kids in the President’s Active Lifestyle Awards program.
Now, this is fun. To earn this award, students need to engage in 60 minutes of physical activity five days a week for six weeks. You all could help too -- go out for the awards, not just for kids -- (laughter) -- because if you meet the goal, you get a certificate from the President. (Laughter.)
Now, the idea behind this award is pretty straightforward. We want to get -- make physical activity habit-forming for kids, to show them how good it feels to be active so that they keep it up long after the six weeks are over.
And that’s a good example of the last point that I want to make today, and that it’s really the small actions, it’s the changes we all can make in our own families that often make all the difference. See, the fact is many of the most important decisions about what our kids eat and how active they are, are made by all of us, not as policy-makers or educators or medical professionals, but as parents and grandparents.
Now, I want to be clear right from the start that this isn’t about completely depriving our kids of the foods they love. It is not about getting rid of those dishes that mean so much in our families and in our cultures. And it is certainly not about parents becoming drill sergeants and demanding that their kids drop and give them 20 -- (laughter) -- or run five miles every day. It’d be good, but you don’t have to do that. (Laughter.)
Instead, it’s about families making manageable changes that fit with their budgets and schedules, with their needs and with their tastes. And that might be something as simple as going for regular walks with your kids or maybe turning off the TV and turning on the radio and dancing a little bit in the living room until you break a sweat. (Laughter.) That counts.
Small things like cutting back on portion sizes or replacing soda with water or just putting some more fruits and vegetables on the table, all of this can add up over time and make a big difference in the lives of our kids. And, believe me, you don’t have to throw Abuela’s cookbook out the window. (Laughter and applause.)
There is a role for those time-honored family recipes, but it’s about moderation. It’s about doing our best to monitor what our kids are consuming. How many snacks are they eating? How many sodas are they drinking? Has dessert become an all-the-time food instead of just a once-in-a-while treat? It’s about being proactive, about going to the doctor and getting our kids screened for obesity.
But most of all, it’s about doing something. There are countless ways for us to start making a difference. The key is to start now, because when it comes to our children’s health and happiness, when it comes to their future, we don’t have a moment to waste. And if anyone knows what it takes to make real change in this country, it’s all of you. It’s what you’ve been doing for nearly 35 years.
Now I remember hearing that when you all started the Hispanic Caucus back in 1976, the Speaker of the House joked that the first meeting could be held in a phone booth, because back then you had just five members. And now, you have 23. (Applause.) CHCI’s first class of fellows was all of four strong. And today, there are more than 5,000 students that have benefited from your educational services and your leadership development programs.
See, now those are results, right? That’s the kind of real impact that you have had, and can have, on this nation and on our children. And that’s the core mission of this organization, to give our children opportunities that we never dreamed of for ourselves. And that’s why all of you have organized. It’s why you’ve marched. It’s why you stood up and spoke out and refused to back down, no matter what kind of odds you faced.
And I don’t think any one in this room -- or any of your parents or grandparents -- fought so hard for so long only to see a future where the greatest threat to our children is their own health.
But the good news is, is that we can do something about this. This is one of those problems that’s in our hand. The solution to this problem is right within our grasp, but only if we reach for it, and only if we work for it and fight for it, only if we once again summon that urgency that has spurred us forward, generation after generation, seeking something better for our children.
So I’m here because we need you once again. We need you to go back home. We need you to drive this conversation in your communities. We need you to roll up your sleeves and we need you to get more people involved to understand what’s at stake. Our schools need you, our families need you, and certainly our country needs you.
And if we come through on this one, which I know we can if we all do our part, then I know that we can give our children the bright future they deserve.
So I want to thank you all. I want to thank you for what you’ve done. I want to thank you for what you continue to do. And I truly look forward to partnering with each and every one of you in the months and years to come, because we can eliminate this problem for our children and our grandchildren.
So thank you all so much. God bless you and congratulations on a wonderful conference. (Applause.)
10:47 A.M. EDT