Remarks by the First Lady at Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Announcement
Edward Reynolds Westside High School
New York, New York
2:45 P.M. EST
MRS. OBAMA: Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you all so much. Good afternoon. (Applause.) These applause are for you all, as well. Thank you so much. Rest yourselves, rest yourselves. It is -- it’s beyond a pleasure for me to be here with all of you.
I want to start by thanking Alexis for that very kind introduction and for his wonderful remarks. And I told Alexis that I love him, I’m proud of him, but I am proud of him and all of the students here, and the staff, the faculty for all they’re doing not just to stay healthy but to honor Jose’s memory –- absolutely. (Applause.)
I also want to recognize Risa Lavizzo-Mourey –- yes. (Applause.) Where is –- there is Risa. You have been truly an outstanding leadership of RWJF, and it’s just been a tremendous joy to work with you. You have been such a trooper. You’ve been on the South Lawn running around. She does a lot of crazy stuff on behalf of Let’s Move. She is a true leader of the cause. And I have just been lucky to get to know you and to work with you.
I also want to acknowledge Senator Bill Frist, who is here. (Applause.) Senator, thank you for your terrific work not just with RWJF but also with the Partnership for a Healthier America. It has been wonderful partnering up with you on this very important issue, and I’m grateful for your leadership as well.
And of course, I want to give a big shoutout to those fabulous master chefs for showing us how to whip up healthier versions of our favorite foods. (Applause.) I didn’t get to eat anything, but that’s okay. I’m going to try and get something later. I appreciate them for being here.
But most of all, I’m here because I want to thank all of you. And I want you to know that I am truly inspired by you. I have learned so much from all of you here in this room. And I am so grateful to you for everything you’re doing to give our kids the healthy futures they deserve. You all have been such important leaders and partners in our work on this issue.
And this year, as we mark the fifth anniversary of Let’s Move –- (applause) –- yes -- I wanted you all to be the first to know the theme that we’ve chosen for what will be an anniversary year. And that theme is “Celebrate, Challenge, and Champion.”
Now, the “celebrate” part of the theme is obvious, because we’ve got a lot to celebrate. Together, we’ve started a national conversation on this issue. And we’re seeing changes at every level –- from individual families to schools to the halls of Congress. Nationwide, childhood obesity rates have finally stopped rising, and obesity rates are actually falling among our youngest children.
So we will be celebrating the national leaders who made these successes possible –- folks like all of you. But we’ll also be celebrating the unsung heroes –- the mom or dad making healthier choices at the supermarket. The corner store owner who installed a refrigerator so he can sell some fresh produce in his neighborhood. And folks like the principal of this wonderful school, Principal Jean McTavish. (Applause.)
Now, let me just tell you a little bit about Principal McTavish, because she doesn’t just talk about eating healthy and getting active, she actually teaches her own spin classes here at West Side High School. And I got to see some of that spinning in action -- it’s hot in there. They were really working out. (Laughter.) And she does that class at 7:30 in the morning -- now that’s dedication.
She fought an epic battle to get skinless chicken breasts into school lunches here -- that’s a fight we all have to have. And when the vending company wouldn’t fill the machines here with healthy snacks, this woman literally turned those machines around so they were facing the wall, because, as she put it –- (applause) -- and these were her words, as I understand, Jean said, “I don’t have to sell any food in my school, thank you very much.” (Laughter.) I met Jean; it sounded like she would add that “thank you very much” part on there -- (laughter) -- with a little attitude, too.
So we are going to be doing some celebrating this year. And in the coming months, we’re going to be talking a lot about everything we’ve achieved through Let’s Move. But we’ll also be doing some challenging, because while we’ve come a long way, we still have a long way to go. So we’re going to be pushing folks to dig deeper and to do even more for our kids.
And finally, we’re going to be focusing on how to truly be a champion on this issue. How to own it. How to invest in it. How to make real, sustainable change have an impact.
And that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to be here today, what I wanted to talk to you guys about. Because I want it to be very clear that no one better embodies what it means to be a champion for our kids’ health than the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. It’s true. (Applause.) Let’s just think about it for a minute: One billion dollars. One billion dollars. I mean, the magnitude of that just takes your breath away. And it’s not just the sheer amount that’s so extraordinary, it’s the risk that RWJF and Risa took to invest those dollars in the first place.
Because back in 2007, when you made that investment, when RWJF made that first big commitment to combat childhood obesity, I know there were a lot of folks out there scratching their heads thinking to themselves, “RWJF is spending $500 million on that? Why?” See, because back in 2007, many folks just didn’t think childhood obesity was a serious issue. And many folks who did think it was a serious issue didn’t want to go anywhere near it, because it seemed like an impossible problem, one so big and so complex and so entrenched it was hard to even know where to begin.
As you all know, there wasn’t much of a culture of health in this country back then. And just think about what life was like for your average family in 2007. You had a parent or two who was busy, working long hours to make ends meet, with kids in daycare or school, eating one or two meals a day at the school -– maybe even a snack or two. And a typical meal at school might have been nothing but pizza and a tater tot. Snack would have been cookies and a sugary juice. And with the cuts to gym class and recess, the kids probably weren’t very active during the day. And then when mom or dad got home from work and it was time for dinner, they were exhausted. So maybe that family wound up at the drive-thru, or if they could afford it, maybe they headed to the local chain restaurant where the healthy menu was just a few lines long.
And even if those parents decided they wanted to eat better and cook more at home, maybe there wasn’t a store in their community where they could buy fresh food. And if they had one, maybe they walked down those aisles looking at all those boxes and bags on the shelves, squinting at the labels, wondering which foods were healthy and which ones weren’t.
See, that family back then never could have imagined that in just eight years, their kids’ school lunches would be filled with fruits and veggies, whole grains, skim milk, and schools across the country would be doing “brain breaks” and other creative efforts to get kids active during the day. They never could have imagined that grocery stores would be cropping up in underserved areas, and convenience stores would start selling fresh produce, and a major American retailer would be putting healthy labels on their food to help people make better choices.
No, that family never could have imagined that fast food restaurants would be putting apples and skim milk in their kid’s meals, or that the healthy menus at chain restaurants would be a page or two rather than just a footnote. All of this progress was unthinkable, because back in 2007, the deck was so totally and utterly stacked against families who wanted to make healthy choices for their kids. They couldn’t have imagined it.
So I think it’s fair to say that by investing $500 million in this issue back then, RWJF wasn’t just stepping on the bandwagon, they were building the bandwagon pretty much from scratch. But they did this because they understood the science, and they realized that this issue wasn’t just undermining our kids’ health, it was undermining the health of our economy. It was affecting the productivity of our workforce. It was costing us billions of dollars in health care expenses.
And while this may all be conventional wisdom now, it certainly wasn’t conventional wisdom back then. And while I might get a lot of credit for what we’ve done through Let’s Move, I know that Let’s Move couldn’t even exist if it weren’t for RWJF’s leadership.
For so many years, this foundation has funded the best programs and the most promising research. And all of that is the platform on which Let’s Move was built. It’s how we could help create a national conversation around this issue and, as Alexis said, make it fun and maybe a little cool.
Together, we’ve made a real impact on our kids’ health. So it would be understandable if, after seeing some progress, RWJF would decide to just sit back, congratulate themselves on a job well done and move on to the next trendy issue. That’s what plenty of funders would do.
But instead, RWJF is doing just the opposite. They are doubling down on this issue -- literally. They have committed to seeing this through to the end. Because they understand that in many ways, the progress we’ve made is fragile, and we are nowhere near finished.
We all know the statistics. We all know the disparities that still exist for children of color and underserved kids. And we all know that for everyone in this country who has stepped up to champion this issue, there are plenty of other folks just waiting for us to get bored. They’re just waiting for us to declare victory and turn our attention to other matters. We’ve seen this firsthand with our battles on school lunches. We have seen special interests throwing every resource they have at this issue, and we know that sometimes our kids’ health isn’t exactly their first priority.
So we simply cannot afford to be complacent for one single minute. And that’s really what it means to be a champion on this issue –- it means being relentless like RWJF. It means pushing and investing until every child in this country can grow up healthy, no matter where that child is from, what that child looks like or how much money their parents have. That’s our goal.
And the good news is that we know we can achieve this goal. We’ve seen the progress we can make when we educate parents and we help them make healthier decisions. And we’ve seen how those decisions then drive companies to create healthier products.
So if RWJF could achieve so much with that first investment back in 2007 when we had so little momentum, just imagine what we can achieve with another $500 million today when we’ve got momentum like we never imagined. (Applause.) Well, today, with this additional investment, RWJF has thrown down the gauntlet: They are in. They’re setting the standard for what it means to be a champion.
And while most of us don’t have a billion dollars to invest -- I don’t -- we should all be rising to meet this standard in our own way. And that’s really the “Challenge” part of our Let’s Move Fifth Anniversary theme. I want to challenge you and folks across the country to make an RWJF kind of commitment at your own scale. I want you to really dive into this issue in your schools, your organizations, communities, your companies, your families –- wherever you are a leader and a decision-maker. Dive in.
And I know this isn’t easy. I know the voices of the naysayers are still loud and can be intimidating. But if RWJF could invest half a billion dollars back when most folks didn’t even think childhood obesity was a problem, and then invest a half billion more today, then we have to say to ourselves, surely we can push the envelope and aim just a little higher in our own efforts. If Principal McTavish can get on an exercise bike in front a bunch of teenagers -- (laughter) -- if she can take on vending companies and work with folks across the entire city food service system to get healthy food to her students, then surely we can help more parents make healthy choices for their kids.
I know we can do this. I have seen it with my own eyes, as have all of you. And if we keep on pushing and innovating and moving forward, then I know that together, we can give all our kids –- every last one of them –- the healthy futures they so richly deserve.
So thank you all again. Thank you for everything that you’ve done, everything that you will continue to do. I’m doubling down. And I look forward to working with all of you in the months and years ahead.
Congratulations, and thank you so much. Thank you for having me.
3:02 P.M. EST