How Big Food Corporations Watered Down Michelle Obama’s ‘Let’s Move’ Campaign

On Wednesday, First Lady Michelle Obama launched her third “Let’s Move!” tour to combat childhood obesity. Before she kicked off the tour in Mississippi, Illinois, and Missouri, Mrs. Obama appeared on “Good Morning America” to praise her campaign’s success in changing children’s eating and exercise habits. She also unveiled Let’s Move latest initiative, the MyPlate Recipe Partnership geared toward parents looking for easy, nutritious recipes:

OBAMA: We’ve really changed the conversation in this country. When we started, there were a lot of people in this country who would have never thought that childhood obesity was a health crisis. But now we’re starting to see some movement on this issue. Our kids are eating better at school. They’re moving more. And we’re starting…to see rates of obesity coming down like never before.

Childhood obesity rates are indeed showing small declines for the first time in decades, especially in cities with aggressive nutrition policies. As Mrs. Obama pointed out, “Let’s Move” has helped call attention to the childhood obesity crisis, and one of her cornerstone achievements was comprehensive school lunch reform that increased funding for public school meals and gave the USDA the ability to regulate foods sold in schools.

Besides school lunch reform, however, “Let’s Move” has deliberately veered away from pushing actual legislation, instead focusing on personal responsibility in nutrition and fitness. That’s a very different approach than the one Mrs. Obama took during the inception of her fight against childhood obesity. In 2010, the First Lady gave a fiery speech at a Grocery Manufacturers Association conference, arguing that changing personal habits won’t work if big companies like Kraft and General Mills continue to target children with misleading ads for sugary, fatty food:

This is a shared responsibility. That’s why I’ve gone to parents and I’ve asked them to do their part. They have a responsibility to watch what their kids eat and teach good habits.[…]And all of you have a responsibility as well.

And we need you not just to tweak around the edges, but to entirely rethink the products that you’re offering, the information that you provide about these products, and how you market those products to our children. That starts with revamping or ramping up your efforts to reformulate your products, particularly those aimed at kids, so that they have less fat, salt, and sugar, and more of the nutrients that our kids need.

As a mom, I know it is my responsibility — and no one else’s — to raise my kids. But what does it mean when so many parents are finding that their best efforts are undermined by an avalanche of advertisements aimed at their kids? And what are these ads teaching kids about food and nutrition? That it’s good to have salty, sugary food and snacks every day — breakfast, lunch, and dinner?

These remarks gave food reform advocates hope that “Let’s Move” was taking on processed food manufacturers’ exploitative overuse of sweeteners and fats, a main cause of the obesity epidemic. But a little over a year later, Mrs. Obama backed away from this hard truth and redirected “Let’s Move” to focus on exercise and personal fitness — a position favored by processed food companies to divert scrutiny of their products.


The new “Let’s Move” also emphasized new corporate partnerships with chains like Walmart, which agreed to open over a thousand new stores in so-called urban “food deserts” and pledged to reduce salt, sugar and fat content in their products over five years.

While self-regulating companies can make a big difference, their standards tend to be far more lenient than federal regulations. In 2011, a federal task force drafted voluntary guidelines for marketing food to children only to see them killed by a lobbying blitz by Walt Disney, Nestlé, Kellogg and General Mills — all companies involved in Let’s Move partnerships. Meanwhile, “Let’s Move” stayed silent on the proposed standards, despite Mrs. Obama’s earlier condemnation of junk food advertising. A few months later, the First Lady announced a separate agreement with Disney with significantly watered down guidelines to end marketing junk food to kids.

This avoidance of policy change may have something to do with the food lobby’s influence in Obama’s White House. According to a Reuters analysis, 50 food and beverage groups have spent more than $175 million in lobbying since Obama took office, dwarfing the $83 million spent in the last 3 years of the Bush administration.

The new MyPlate Recipe Partnership suggests that even in the post-election season, “Let’s Move” will still emphasize personal habits. It doesn’t seem likely that the campaign will attempt to rein in Big Food through regulation anytime soon. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Wednesday, the First Lady congratulated “great American companies” like Walmart, Disney, and Walgreens for “stepping up to invest in building a healthier future for our kids.”