Remarks by the First Lady to the National Council of La Raza
Earnest M. Morial Convention Center
New Orleans, Louisiana
11:59 A.M. CDT
MRS. OBAMA: Buenos dias! Oh, my goodness. You all rest yourselves. You've been busy. I understand you are having a phenomenal conference. And it is such a pleasure to be here with all of you today for this 2013 Annual Conference.
Of course, I want to start by thanking Janet not just for that very kind introduction, but I want to thank her, as well as Jorge Plasencia, for their leadership, for this outstanding organization. I also very much want to thank all of you who are part of this great American organization.
As you know, for more than four decades, NCLR has served as a powerful voice on the most important issues of our time -- from voting rights to health care, from education to immigration. Because of all of you, your steadfast work, we have seen such great progress for the Latino community and for our country.
And please know that whether it’s implementing health reform or passing common-sense immigration reform, your President and his administration are going to keep working with you and fighting with you every step of the way. (Applause.) Know that. And I know these debates are hard -- particularly on immigration. But do not give up, because I promise you that my husband won’t give up until a good bill gets on his desk. (Applause.)
That's because in the end, these issues are all about one simple thing: They’re about achieving the American Dream. They’re about building a country where no matter who you are, or where you’re from, or what you look like, or who you love, you can build a decent life for yourself and an even better life for your kids.
But, of course, as you all know, keeping that dream alive isn’t just about changing our laws out in Washington. It’s also about changing people’s lives on the ground. It’s about the grassroots, community-based work that so many of you have been doing for so long. And that's especially true of the issue that I want to discuss with you today -- as Janet mentioned, an issue that affects the lives of children and families across this country -- and that is the epidemic of childhood obesity in America today.
Now, we often talk about this issue as a policy issue, which it is, since our laws certainly affect our children’s health. And we often say that it is a public health issue, which is true, since we now spend $190 billion a year treating obesity-related illnesses like diabetes, cancer and heart disease. But more than anything else, how we raise and nourish our children is very much a family issue. It’s very much a community issue.
And see, that’s where it gets complicated, because that's where it gets personal and emotional. Because the truth is, for so many of us, food is love. (Laughter.) I mean, it is no coincidence. Applause for food is love. (Applause.) It is no coincidence that the kitchen is the central gathering place in so many of our homes. And it’s no surprise that food is at the heart of so many of our family occasions. Because whether we’re celebrating the good times or comforting each other in the bad times, food is how we knit our families together. It’s how we pass on our culture and our heritage as meals become family traditions and recipes are passed on from generation to generation. And by cooking for our loved ones, we show them how much we care about them, even when we can’t say it with words.
And that was certainly true in my family when I was growing up. My grandfather was an outstanding cook. His barbecued ribs -- let me tell you, they were legendary. (Laughter.) We called my grandfather "Southside." Why, because he lived on the South Side of Chicago. (Applause.) Simple. We were creative like that. (Applause.) Southside’s home was the headquarters for every special occasion. And my mom being one of seven children, you can imagine there was always some kind of special occasion going on -- birthday, anniversary, some achievement we were celebrating all the time. So we were over at Southside’s just about every weekend, packed into his little house, eating those ribs for dinner -- talking and laughing, listening to jazz, playing cards late into the night.
And then, when we could barely keep our eyes open, Southside would jump up and ask, “Anybody want cheeseburgers and milkshakes?” He didn't want us to leave. Then we’d have another full meal at 10, 11 o’clock at night. So for me, many of my best memories from childhood center around food.
And while we may have grown up in different communities with different cultures and traditions, I know that’s true for so many of you as well. For me, it was Southside’s ribs. Maybe for you it was Abuela’s tortillas or Tia’s arroz con pollo. In my community, it was mac and cheese at church dinner. For you, it might have been arroz con gandules. (Applause.) For us, Christmas meant a honey-baked ham. For you, maybe it was tamales. (Applause.)
And I’m guessing that like me, some of you grew up in families that didn’t have a whole lot of money. So you understand, like I do, that when you’re just getting by, sometimes food is all you’ve got. So maybe you can’t afford that nice pair of sneakers or those music lessons that your kids are begging for, but maybe you can spring for a cheeseburger from the drive-thru or bake that favorite dessert. In other words, when you always have to say no to your kids, sometimes it feels good to at least be able to say yes to food.
And back when we were growing up, that way of life was actually sustainable, because while we may have eaten way too much Saturday or Sunday, Monday through Friday, we ate reasonably well, mainly because money was tight. We couldn’t afford to have dessert with every meal. You were not allowed to snack in between meals -- didn't have the money, didn't have the food. More importantly, the meals themselves were pretty healthy.
Think about those fresh greens and beans that were the foundation of southern cooking -- vegetables that often came straight from the garden. Think about the fresh frutas that many of you grew up eating. And on top of that, think about how active we all were back then -- running around all day, walking to and from school all day. Yes, to the young people, we had to walk to school. (Laughter.) A lot of walking going on. And we all had to attend P.E. classes that were required in school.
But times have changed. And today, a lot of folks don’t have access to fresh food in their communities. In fact, Hispanic neighborhoods have roughly one-third as many chain supermarkets as other communities have. And a lot of folks are working longer hours, working harder than ever before just to make ends meet. So instead of making home-cooked meals, it’s often easier to head to the drive-thru or pop something in the microwave.
And as for physical activity, consider these statistics: Compared to white parents, nearly five times more Hispanic parents report that safety is a barrier to their kids being active. And Hispanic kids ages nine to 13 are only half as likely to participate in organized physical activity outside of school.
Sadly, all these changes in how we live and eat are having a devastating effect on our children’s health. Right now, nearly 40 percent of Hispanic children in this country are overweight or obese. Nearly 50 percent are on track to develop diabetes -- 50 percent, half of our kids -- a disease that is already far too common in so many of our communities.
So while food might be love, the truth is that we are loving ourselves and our kids to death. So we need to step up. We need to own this as a serious problem in our communities. We need to admit that what we’re doing simply isn’t working anymore. And we need to start questioning the behaviors and beliefs that are making our kids sick -- like that uncle, dear uncle who dismisses this issue, but keeps slipping our kids candy; the grandmother who insists that a chubby baby is a healthy baby; the overworked sister who gives your nieces and nephews the foods they want instead of the nutrition they need. Because times have changed, and the way we live and eat has to change, too.
Now, that doesn’t mean doing away with the traditions that make us who we are. Grandpa doesn’t have to forsake his ribs. Abuela doesn’t have to stop making that tres leches that everyone loves. Special occasions call for special foods. And treats, children, are an important part of childhood. Don't get me wrong. I'm not a treat hater. (Laughter.) They matter for adults as well.
For example, I eat a balanced diet and I work out every single day of the week with very few exceptions. But let me tell you something, while I am here in New Orleans today -- (laughter) -- everyone understand there is no way I am leaving this city without a good meal. No way. Not happening. (Applause.)
We don’t have to completely deprive ourselves to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Instead, it’s about striving for balance and moderation, doing our best to eat right and stay active in between the special occasions. And it’s about empowering families with the information and resources they need to make healthy choices for their kids.
And that’s why, three years ago, we launched Let’s Move, as Janet said, a nationwide initiative to help all of our kids grow up healthy. And since then we have seen folks from every sector of our society, including many of you, stepping up to be a part of this movement. Organizations like NCLR have helped launch our MiPlato initiative to teach families about healthy eating. And companies like Goya are promoting that initiative. Yes! Yes! (Applause.) We are grateful and proud.
And many other major American businesses like Walmart and organizations like the Food Trust, which is working right here in New Orleans, are bringing fresh food into our communities. Restaurants are offering healthier menus. Mayors throughout the country are refurbishing parks and playgrounds. And we are bringing healthier breakfasts, lunches and vending machines into our school cafeterias. (Applause.) Yes, indeed.
We are finally starting to see some results, as childhood obesity rates are beginning to drop in cities and states all across this country. (Applause.) We’re making progress, thanks to all of you.
And while we still have a long way to go, the good news is that right now, we have everything we need to reclaim our children’s health -- that is, if we’re willing to step up and continue to do our part in our own families and communities. And that starts by using our power as consumers to hold companies responsible for the food they make and how they market it to our kids.
In 2008 alone, companies spent well over half a billion dollars on food, beverage and restaurant ads in Latino media markets -- many of them for unhealthy products. And those of us with kids who have seen our kids begging and pleading for something they saw on TV, we know just how persuasive these ads can be. So we all know that the food industry has some serious work to do when it comes to how they market food to our kids. But here’s the thing -- ultimately, we all have the power to decide whether or not to actually buy those foods. And today, the Latino community’s buying power is more than one trillion dollars -- you hear me? Trillion with a “t” -- (applause) -- and it’s expected to increase to $1.5 trillion by 2015.
So make no mistake about it, with the choices that you make, you all could completely transform the marketplace. You all have the power right now, today. So when companies step up and provide healthy choices, we all need to step up and actually take advantage of those choices. Because let me tell you something, Goya can produce low-sodium products, but if we don’t buy them, they will stop selling them. Restaurants can offer healthy meals, but if we don’t order them, trust me, they will take that stuff off the menu, go back to the way it was.
In the end, we create the demand for these products and it’s up to us to demand quality, affordable food that is good for our kids. But it’s on us. (Applause.)
But while making the right choices in the store and off the menu is critical, it’s not enough. Because we all know that if we truly want to raise healthy children, we need access to quality, affordable health care -- including the regular checkups and screenings our kids need to stay healthy.
And again, that was true in my own family, raising my girls. When my girls were little, I was diligent about taking them to every single one of their well-child visits right on time, where their growth was tracked on a regular basis. And it was during one of these visits when our pediatrician pulled me aside and told me that I better make some changes if I wanted my daughters to grow up healthy. And let me tell you, that was a real wakeup call for us, because, as a family, when we looked at ourselves, we weren’t eating as well as we should have. And let me tell you, we listened to our pediatrician and we made those changes.
And I share this story because I think it helps to illustrate the importance of health reform, which will ensure that people have access to the preventative care needed to keep their families healthy -- (applause) -- things like nutrition counseling, diabetes testing, and so much more.
But let’s be clear, simply passing the Affordable Care Act was not the goal. The goal is to get folks to sign up for the insurance so they have the care they need to stay healthy. And as leaders in our communities, we are going to need your help to make this happen.
And I know that you all were briefed on this new law by senior administrators at the Health Summit that was held here on Friday. So here’s what I’m asking you to do. Are you listening? The minute you get back home from this conference, we need you to get out there and educate everyone you know about what health reform means for them. And I’m talking about making sure they understand the real facts.
Tell them that starting October the 1st, they need to sign up for insurance. Explain to them that the first step in signing up is to create an account, which they can easily do by going to healthcare.gov or cuidadodesalud -- starting on July 31st, just eight days from today.
And we especially need you to reach out to our young people, because they’re the ones who always think they’re invincible. And we all have someone in our lives -- some wonderful young person, son or daughter, niece, nephew, grandchild, neighbor -- walking around today without any insurance because they don’t think they need it or don’t know where to go and get it. And we all have the power and the urgent responsibility to get after our young people and get them to sign up. Because while they may roll their eyes for a moment, we know that when Mama and Abuela speak, they listen. That's where you come in. So we need to send them to those websites which have all the information they need about health reform.
This is particularly true for those of you in Texas, Florida and California, because one-third of the young people we need to reach live in those states. And whether they’re healthy or not, we have got to make sure that our young people understand that regular checkups and preventive care are as much a part of life as brushing their teeth and paying their bills.
Because while many of us may not have had these advantages in our own lives, we now know the difference that health care can make for our children and grandchildren. We know that good health care is essential to leading longer, healthier, happier lives. We know better. And that is one of the greatest gifts we can pass on to our children. This is a gift.
More than anything else, that is story of the Latino community in this country -- the story of working, and organizing, and sacrificing so that our kids can have something more, something better than we had. It’s the story of people like Janet Murguia and her family -- the story of parents who never went beyond 7th grade, but who believed in education like a religion, and they pushed their seven children to succeed in school. They watched them go to college and then graduate school, and then to become lawyers and judges -- including Janet’s twin sister, Judge Mary Murguia, who my husband proudly nominated to the Ninth Circuit in 2010. (Applause.)
And the story of Latinos in this country is the story of this organization, the National Council of La Raza. It’s the story of visionary leaders like Raul Yzaguirre, and of so many --(applause) -- yes -- so many people like all of you who have been coming together for 45 years to raise their voices in the service of one simple goal, and that is, as Janet said, “to throw open the doors of the American Dream to everyone.”
And today, as we always do, we need to once again draw on that proud legacy. We need to once again summon the passion and determination, and use the power of our voices to give our children one of the greatest advantages possible: the blessing of good health, the energy and the strength and the stamina they need to succeed in their careers, and to raise families of their own, and to have opportunities we’ve never dreamed of for ourselves.
That is how we will ensure that our children and grandchildren can fulfill their boundless promise. And that is how we will realize the promise of this country, this great country, for all of its people.
So, are you all ready to get to work? (Applause.) We’re going to need you. And I want to thank you again. Thank you for everything that you are doing, everything that you will continue to do. And I look forward -- really look forward to working with all of you in the months and years ahead.
Que Dios los bendiga. God bless. (Applause.)
12:22 P.M. CDT