Monday, December 13, 2010

Michelle Obama: Childhhod Obesity "National Security Threat"

First Ladies have a history of adopting a cause. Ladybird Johnson's signature theme was "Beautify America". Barbara Bush adopted literacy as her cause. The idea of Presidential spouses taking on a cause that transcends partisan barriers is an old one. Michelle Obama has taken on childhood obesity as her personal project, declaring it to be a national security issue, noting as follows.

“And from military leaders who tell us that when more than one in four young people are unqualified for military service because of their weight, childhood obesity isn’t just a public health threat, it’s not just an economic threat, it’s a national security threat as well. These folks come at this issue from all different angles. But they’ve come together to support this bill because they know that it’s the right thing to do for our kids. And they know that in the long run, it won’t just save money, it will save lives.”

Her solution is a piece of legislation known as the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which is an attempt to address with legislation. There is no doubt that many adult health problems start in childhood. Adults do not develop heart disease or diabetes without years of preparation in fast food restaurants.

There may well be a role for government in promoting children's health.School cafeterias should offer food that is both healthful and attractive to children. Food stamps should not cover "dead calories" like sugary soda. Health education and exercise should be promoted as ways of saving money in the long run and subsidised with tax breaks.

But government can not do everything. A lot of education and social conditioning takes place in entertainment venues. Movies, television and music have a lot of influence on people.

There are food trends that are a step in the right direction already. Sushi, salad bars and falafel sandwiches are a big improvement over grease and chloresterol laden burgers and deep fried foods. People are increasingly turning to such foods. Spring water is also seen with increasing frequency in the hands of young children who a generation ago would have drunk sugary soda.

Corporations pay millions of dollars for advertising that they know will create a need for their products. There is money to be made promoting good health. People who are diabetic or who have high blood pressure like to eat out like everyone else. Some of the better restaurants address their needs. Imagine a restaurant that catered entirely to the needs of those who must modify their sugar, salt or some other aspect of their diet. There are plenty of people who are in danger of developing hypertension  or diabetes who want to head off such illnesses. Imagine restaurant chains that prepare safe healthy food. Imagine regular restaurants having a part of their menus that are suitable to weight watchers, diabetics and people with high blood pressure.

Sushi was a rarity back in the 70's. Now it is is found all across America. It is possible to create a perceived need even for useless things like pet rocks. Certainly it is possible to create a need for what is beneficial.

Most education takes place out of school, and most change starts not with a government mandate but with a change of heart. Michelle Obama has identified a real problem of youth who are obese. As an influential pubic figure, she may well be able to spur private enterprise to pick up the torch and run with it. As a child of the sixties, I marvel at the sight of my children drinking spring water instead of soda. Change can happen. It can even be pushed by public figures like Michelle Obama. But I question whether bad habits can be legislated out of existence.

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