Remarks by The First Lady to the National Governors Association
11:09 A.M. EST
MRS. OBAMA: Thank you all so much. Thank you. It is a pleasure for me to be here with all of you today and to welcome you all to Washington.
Thank you, Governor Douglas, for that very kind introduction. And thanks to you and Governor Manchin for your leadership in Vermont as well as [West] Virginia, and as the Chair and the Vice Chair of the NGA.
And I also want to recognize all the governors who are here today and to thank you for your outstanding leadership and the dedicated service that you provide to states all across this country. We are grateful to you.
Now, I would be remiss if I didn't thank all the spouses who are here for all the things you have to put up with. (Laughter.) The long hours, absolutely. (Applause.) You all are making the same kind of sacrifices, putting up with long hours and late-night crises. And all I can say is, been there, done that. (Laughter.) And I know how you feel, and we are just grateful to have you all. And again, we'll give them another round of applause. (Applause.)
Now, I know that the focus of this year's meeting is the issue of health care. And over the next few days, you're going to be talking about spiraling costs that are straining your budgets and running up all of our deficits -- costs like the nearly $150 billion a year that we spend on obesity-related conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure. You're going to talk about the staggering Medicaid burdens -- and how premiums have risen three times faster than wages, often bankrupting families in your states, sinking businesses in states all across this country.
But we all know that there's another set of statistics that have to be a part of this discussion -- like how nearly one in three of our children in this country is now overweight or obese. Like how one in three kids today will eventually develop diabetes -- and in the African American and Hispanic communities, the number is nearly half. Because if we think our health care costs are high now, just wait until 10 years from now. Think about the many billions we're going to be spending then. Think about how high those premiums are going to be when our kids are old enough to have families of their own and businesses of their own.
So we all know that we can't solve our health care problems unless we address our childhood obesity problem, too. And that's really why I'm here today: to talk about the issue of childhood obesity that is so important to me and what our states and our nations can do to solve it.
But we have to begin by understanding how we got here, what's caused this crisis in the first place. And I have my theories, but when you all think about it, this is a relatively new phenomenon. This wasn't something that we were dealing with when I was growing up. Back when we were all growing up, most of us led lives that naturally kept us at a healthy weight. We walked to school and we walked home, because we usually lived in communities where our schools were close. All of us ran around all day at school, doing recess and gym because everybody had to do it. And then when we got home, we'd be sent right back outside and told not to come back home until dinner was served. (Laughter.) You know your parents didn't let you in the house.
And back then we ate sensibly. We had many more home-cooked meals. That was the norm. And much to our dismay at the time, there was always something green on the plate. (Laughter.) Fast food and dessert was a special treat. You had it but you didn't have it every day, and the portion sizes were reasonable. In my family I remember a couple of pints of ice cream -- this was a big treat -- we'd get three pints of ice cream for a family of four and that would last us a week, because you wouldn't eat a pint, you'd get a scoop, and that would be it. You'd savor that a spoonful at a time.
And these weren't arbitrary rules that our parents just made up. As we know now, it was a way of life they imposed to help keep us active and healthy. They knew back then that kids couldn't and shouldn't sit still for hours. They knew that kids needed to run around and play. They knew that keeping us healthy wasn't about saying no to everything, but it was about balance and moderation. We all had our share of burgers and fries and ice cream growing up. We just didn't have it every day, and not at every meal.
But somewhere along the line, we kind of lost that sense of perspective and moderation. And we all want the very best for our kids just like our parents wanted for us. But with the pressures of today's economy, and the breakneck pace of modern life, many parents feel like the deck is stacked against them.
They want to prepare healthy foods for their kids, but a lot of times they're tight on money and they just can't afford these meals. Or oftentimes they're tight on time because they're juggling longer hours at work and many of them juggling multiple jobs. So they just can't swing coming home and making a home-cooked meal around the dinner table. It's hard.
They want their kids to be active, but sometimes they live in communities where either it's not practical to walk to school or, worse yet, it's not safe. Or they live in communities where gym classes and school sports are considered luxuries and not necessities -- the first things to go in a budget crunch. And those afternoons playing outside, they've been replaced by afternoons sitting inside in front of the TV or video games or the Internet. And as a result, many parents feel like they've lost that sense of being in charge that their parents had.
But we have to be honest with ourselves: Our kids didn't do this to themselves. Our kids didn't decide whether there's time for recess or gym class, or our kids don't decide what's served to them in the school cafeteria. Our kids don't decide whether to build playgrounds and parks in their neighborhoods or whether to bring supermarkets and farmer's markets to their communities. We set those priorities. We make those decisions. And even if it doesn't feel like we're in charge, we are.
But that's the good news. Because if we make these decisions here, then we can decide to solve this problem. And that's precisely what so many of you are doing right now in your states. You're experimenting and innovating. Many of you are ignoring the naysayers and the old partisan divides, and focusing solely on what works.
In Pennsylvania, for example, folks started a Fresh Food Financing Initiative to bring grocery stores to underserved areas. And I got to visit one of those communities yesterday when I spent some time with Governor Rendell in Philadelphia. In that community they started with $30 million, and then they leveraged that for an additional $190 million from the private and non-profit sectors. And with that money they've funded 83 supermarket projects in 34 counties that are making profits, and they're projected to create more than 5,000 jobs.
In North Carolina, they've launched a full-scale effort to help kids eat healthier and to exercise more. They've banned snack and soda vending machines from elementary schools. They've given grants to cities and to counties for things like sidewalks and trails and community gardens. And they've trained 41,000 teachers across the state on how to incorporate physical activity into the classroom.
And Arkansas started on the issue of childhood obesity way back in 2003 -- something former Governor Huckabee and I discussed yesterday when I appeared on his TV show. They screened students' BMIs, which was controversial. They got healthier food into their schools and required regular physical education classes. And as a result, that state was able to halt the rise of childhood obesity completely.
What you all are doing is proof that if we are creative and committed enough, if we meet this challenge with the kind of energy and determination that it requires, then we can take back control and we can turn back the tide and we can give our kids the kind of lives they deserve.
And that's why last week we launched this wonderful initiative called "Let's Move." It's a nationwide campaign to rally this country around a single ambitious goal, and that is to solve the problem of childhood obesity in a generation so that the kids born today will reach adulthood at a healthy weight.
So we've issued a call to action. We've said, let's move. Let's move to help families and communities make healthier decisions for their kids. And let's move to bring together governors and mayors and doctors, nurses, our business leaders, non-profit community, our educators, our athletes, our parents to tackle this challenge once and for all. Because it's going to take every last one of us -- particularly folks in the private sector, from the food industry offering healthier options to retailers who understand that what's good for kids and families can actually be good for businesses, too.
That's why, over the next 90 days, the first ever government-wide task force, which includes members of our Cabinet, will develop a national action plan. And they won't just review every government program relating to child nutrition and physical activity and advise us on how to marshal those resources. But they're also going to develop benchmarks to measure our progress, and recommend actions that can be taken by the private and the non-profit sectors.
But we cannot wait 90 days to get to work here. So we've already gotten started on a series of initiatives to achieve our goal.
There are four key pillars. The first: Let's move to offer parents the tools and information they need and that many have been asking for to make healthier choices for their kids. So many parents want to do the right thing, but they are bombarded by conflicting information, and they don't know what to believe or where to start. That's why many of you have been running public education campaigns and creating healthy-living Web sites. And California is leading the way, becoming the first state in the country to require restaurant chains of a certain size to post calorie information on menus and menu boards -- just one part of an aggressive, anti-obesity strategy that's making a difference across that state. And the health care legislation in Congress follows their lead. It includes a similar provision to help parents make informed decisions.
Let's Move is going to add to these efforts. We've started with a Web site, called letsmove.obamawhitehouse.archives.gov, that's going to have helpful tips and step-by-step strategies for parents. We're also working with pediatricians and family doctors to encourage them to screen kids for obesity early, and then actually write out a prescription for parents with action steps that they can take to address it so they don't feel like they're dealing with this problem alone.
And we've been working with the FDA and the food industry to make our food labels more customer-friendly, so that people don't spend hours squinting at words they can't pronounce to know if the foods they're buying are healthy. In fact, the nation's beverage companies, the largest, just announced that they're going to be providing clearly visible information about calories on the front of their products and on their vending machines and soda fountains. And this is a step in the right direction. It's an important step, but it's still only one step. And we have so many more ahead.
We can't forget, for example, that 31 million of our children participate in federal school meal programs. So we don't want to be in the position where we take one step forward with parents making good decisions, but then we take two steps back when lunch time rolls around at school and kids are faced with poor choices in the school cafeteria.
So let's move to get healthier food into our nation's schools, and that's the second part of this initiative. There's a reason why our governors are such passionate advocates for our school meal programs. It's because you all know the impact that these programs have. You know that when kids get the nutrition they need, they perform better in the classroom and they miss fewer days of school. So let's multiply that by 31 million, and we are talking about a serious impact on education in this country.
That's why we've set a goal of doubling the number of schools in the HealthierUS School Challenge. And we've already gotten several major food suppliers to commit to offering healthier school meals.
We're also updating and strengthening the Child Nutrition Act. Secretary Vilsack is taking the lead on these efforts, and we plan to invest an additional $10 billion over 10 years to fund that legislation. This will allow us to serve 1 million more kids in the first five years, and dramatically improve the quality of food in our schools -- decreasing sugar, fat, and salt; and increasing fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
But our success here is up to you. It's up to you to get that -- get the most out of these new investments. And maybe that means demanding more from your suppliers in your state, or maybe renegotiating your contracts to include healthier options. Maybe it means starting a farm-to-school program or insisting on healthier options in school vending machines, which, by the way, has actually meant increased revenues in schools in Kentucky and Maine and elsewhere.
But while school meals provide critical nutrition for millions of kids, we also can't forget that kids get plenty of their calories at home, right in their own neighborhoods. And many of our kids live in what we call "food deserts," and these are areas without access to a grocery store. Imagine that, living in a community without a grocery store. So too many of those calories at home come from fast food or processed foods from the local gas station or convenience store.
So that's why the third component of "Let's Move" is, let's move to ensure that all our families have access to healthy, affordable food in their communities. Right now there are food deserts in every single state in this country, so we've set an ambitious goal, and that is to eliminate every last one of those food deserts within seven years.
And to achieve this, we've created the Healthy Food Financing Initiative that is modeled on what was so successful in Pennsylvania. We'll start with an initial investment of $400 million a year. And we'll use that to leverage hundreds of millions more from the private and non-profit sectors to bring grocery stores to underserved areas across the country.
And once again, our success here is going to depend so much on what you do. We need you to encourage communities to apply for these grants, and provide the right incentives -- from helpful zoning laws, to remapped transit routes that help shoppers access stores, to job training to entice grocers with a well-prepared workforce.
But we know that eating right is only part of the battle. We all know that in our own lives. We know that physical activity is critical, too -- not just for better health but for better academic achievement. Experts recommend that kids get at least 60 minutes of active play each day. And we know that many of our kids aren't anywhere close to that. So let's move -- and I mean that literally. We have to move to find new ways for our kids to be physically active both in and out of school.
And I have to say that many of you have been very creative on this piece already. Folks in West Virginia have taken the lead in bringing DDR -- that's Dance, Dance Revolution -- it's a new video game that gets kids up and moving. Many other states use it as well. And let me tell you, I can attest to Dance, Dance Revolution. We got it at Camp David, and it will make you sweat. (Laughter.) And it is addictive in a very good way. The President still can't do it. (Laughter.)
Georgia is using a program called HOPSports, and they're beaming in videos of famous athletes into gym classes so kids can learn skills and techniques from their heroes and their role models.
And to build on these efforts, "Let's Move" is going to work to modernize and expand the President's Physical Fitness Challenge. And we've already recruited professional athletes from dozens of different sports leagues. They're going to be involved to encourage our kids to get and stay active.
So that's just some of what we're doing -- just some of it. That's how we're working to attack this problem from every single angle. Because that's the thing about this issue of childhood obesity -- it has so many different causes. There are so many different culprits, and it's not enough to tackle any one of them alone, because we can give our kids the healthiest school meals imaginable, but if the rest of their calories come from the corner store or drive-through, then they still won't get adequate nutrition. And we can have shiny new supermarkets on every block in every community, but if parents don't have the information they need, they'll still struggle to make the right choices for their kids.
So we need a comprehensive, coordinated approach to this problem. But that doesn't necessarily mean an expensive approach, because I know that many of you are stretched thinner than ever in these times, and don't actually have money to spare. But often it's about doing more with what you already have. If you're already paving a new road, for example, why not add a sidewalk or a bike path, too? Or if you're already building a housing development, why not add a playground? If you've got school gyms or playing fields empty after hours, why not find a way to open them up to the community at night or on the weekends?
I also want to be clear that "comprehensive and coordinated" doesn't mean centralized. I've spoken to so many experts on this issue, and not a single one of them has said that the solution is for the federal government to tell people what to do. That doesn't work. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this problem. Because what works in Rhode Island might not work in Arizona. What's perfect for Hawaii might not be right for Minnesota. Different states, as you know, have different needs and different priorities and different resources.
And you all know best what's going to work for the people that you serve. You know what's working and you know what isn't. That's why the NGA's efforts to support this issue and to provide best practice is going to be so valuable. It has already been. That's why I've reached out to so many of you to get your ideas and your input and to learn more about how we can help you. And I want to hear from every single state, of every size, from every region. I want to work with leaders from both parties, because the way I see this, there is nothing Democratic or Republican, there is nothing liberal or conservative about wanting our kids to lead active, healthy lives.
There's no place for politics when it comes to fighting childhood obesity. And I know all of you agree; I know that. You know that -- (applause) -- you know that because with a phone call or the stroke of a pen, you can determine whether a child can see a doctor or get a decent education or have a safe place to play, because you all are fighting the real battles every day on behalf of our kids, and you don't have time for the fake battles. You're interested in what works, what makes a real difference in people's lives, what will make things better for the next generation.
It's funny, because that's what drove President Theodore Roosevelt to call the very first meeting of this organization a century ago to speak to America's governors about conservation -- about preserving America's beauty and bounty not just for the current generation but for generations to come.
Working for the next generation is what drives so many Americans to do what they do -- to work that extra shift, to take that extra job, to go without themselves just so that their kids can have more than they did. It's what we've always done in this country. I know my parents have done it for me. They measured their success by the success of their children, by whether their children were happier and healthier and had a better shot at fulfilling their dreams than they did.
That's why so many of you got involved in politics in the first place -- to leave something better for those who are going to come after you. And in the end, that's what "Let's Move" is all about. It is simple. Let's stop wringing our hands and talking about it and citing statistics. Let's act. Let's move. Let's give our kids the future they deserve.
Look, I look forward to working with all of you in these efforts over the months and years ahead. I'm going to need you. I'm going to need you championing these causes, giving me feedback, giving me direction and guidance. It will not work any other way. And our kids can't afford for us to get this wrong, and we know it.
So thank you in advance for your help, and I look forward to seeing you all on the dance floor tomorrow night. (Laughter.) Thank you so much. (Applause.)
11:33 A.M. EST