First Lady Michelle Obama exercises with kids at a Let's Move! event.

Say you are an average American adult, feeling a bit hungry around lunchtime. Though every person has a different standard of health for their body depending on gender, height, weight and level of physical fitness, assume that you consume close to the average 2,000 calories per day recommended by nutrition labels. Now say you wander into a local Friendly’s and order something off the Kids Menu – a Mac & Cheese Quesadilla Meal. Eating food intended for a young child, you’ve just consumed nearly 2,300 calories in one meal.

That figure is shocking. Yet what’s even more shocking is that it is no anomaly, no hidden, malicious plot by Friendly’s Restaurant to clog the arteries of young children. In fact, walk into an A&W, Outback Steakhouse, or Steak N’ Shake, and you can easily find items on kids menus that are over 1,000 calories each. While these restaurants are fast food places and not known for their healthy eating options, there is no excuse for their unbelievably unhealthy dishes for children. To put it frankly, it’s nauseating, and all part of the new and sad trend hitting homes across America – childhood obesity.

Nearly one in three children in the United States is overweight or obese. Take a second to consider exactly how devastating that statistic really is. Walking across America, one out of every three kids you see is unhealthy because of how they are eating. It is not just that they look a little chubby; it is that one third of all children born in America after 2000 will contract diabetes at some point during their lives.  It is that countless others will face heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer and other chronic health problems as a result of obesity. It is appalling to think that American children are facing lifelong battles with serious health problems all because of the type and amount of food they are ingesting at home and at school.

This is a very serious issue, and one that cannot be ignored. After all, unhealthy kids become unhealthy adults, draining thousands of dollars in healthcare costs. Research has also shown that when kids do not receive proper nutrition, they fall behind in school and are less likely to engage in their communities. Not only will unhealthy eating plague these kids’ health for years, it will also contribute to a less productive American society.

There is hope for reversing these trends, however. Recently, childhood obesity has started to be investigated as a serious problem, thanks to First Lady Michelle Obama’s new initiative known as Let’s Move!  This initiative has “the ambitious goal of solving the challenge of childhood obesity within a generation so that children born today will reach adulthood at a healthy weight,” according to the Let’s Move! website. Some have criticized Michelle Obama, arguing that this issue is safe, well within the traditional bounds of First Lady politics, and chosen for political posturing. Yet there is nothing easy and nothing simple about the combustible mix of reasons for the rising rates of childhood obesity. After all, there is no one cause for this problem. Instead, it is the low funding for school lunch programs, which leads schools to choose the cheapest—and often unhealthiest—options for their cafeterias and vending machines. It is the higher cost of healthy foods, driving low-income families to eat at fast food restaurants night after night. It is the existence of dozens of “food deserts” across the United States – areas where there is literally no access to fresh fruits and vegetables. And it is the increasingly sedentary lifestyle of American children today, who spend on average more than 7.5 hours a day watching TV and movies, using cell phones and computers for entertainment, and playing video games.

Yet since the launch of Let’s Move! in February of this year, the First Lady has proven that there can be significant progress against childhood obesity. She has shaped the discussion by focusing on the role of nutrition and exercise in healthy lifestyles, not on body image and “fat” versus “skinny”. She has created a four pillar approach to tackling the issue that emphasizes helping parents make better choices, providing healthy food in schools, improving access to affordable, healthy foods, and increasing physical activity. As well, the First Lady has focused the national dialogue on healthy living in general, realizing that childhood obesity is reduced not just by smaller portions and less calories, but by healthy families working together.

So far, Let’s Move! has been a powerhouse of momentum. In only six months, it has ushered in the Task Force on Childhood Obesity which conducts research on childhood obesity; started the program Chefs Move to Schools, getting chefs to adopt schools and help educate kids about food; and shepherded a bill for the funding of new, healthier programs for school lunches through Congress with strong bipartisan support. In an age where bureaucratic stalls and public apathy seem to be the norm, the First Lady’s initiative is quickly becoming an undeniable success story.

Of course, the real test will be whether families across America take up this cause with as much vigor and determination as the First Lady. After all, this is a problem that cannot just be solved by laws passed in Congress, or with increased media attention. Instead, it needs the support of individual people – parents, educators, doctors, and businesses – working together to provide a healthier, happier lifestyle for America’s children. Hopefully in a few years, kids’ meals will not look quite so frightening.

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Anna Applebaum

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