Interview: Michelle Obama on Let's Move, Meal Planning, and Pinterest

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To celebrate the three-year anniversary of Let’s Move! -- her initiative to help raise a healthier generation of kids -- the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, visited Clinton, Mississippi as part of a two-day national tour. She and celebrity chef Rachael Ray hosted a cafeteria cookoff at the Eastside-Northside Elementary Schools to highlight the new healthier school lunches served across the nation as a result of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act signed into law by President Obama in 2010.

Mississippi is leading the way in reducing childhood obesity rates, with a 13% drop in obesity among elementary school students since 2005, as the result of state and federal changes. (The Mississippi Office of Healthy Schools was established in 2004, and the state legislature passed the Mississippi Healthy Students Act in 2007.) Ms. Obama chose the Clinton Public School District for a visit because it enlisted the community, business leaders, and students to make its schools healthier, using no additional funding. Through these changes, students now get more exercise and more nutritious meal choices.

First Lady Michelle Obama participates in media interview with Nikki Gladd with BlogHer, following a “Let’s Move!” initiative third anniversary tour event at Eastside and Northside Elementary Schools in Clinton, Mississippi, Feb. 27, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

I spent 15 minutes with Ms. Obama talking about Let’s Move! and how she plans to keep the momentum going. We also talked about how parents can afford to buy healthy food, and how she depends on bloggers to get the word out. (And I got a little personal advice about how to help my own two boys make healthier eating choices, too!)

The title of the day’s event was “Change is Happening" -- and it is. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reports that obesity rates are falling in several U.S. locations -- not only in Mississippi, but also in Philadelphia, New York City, and California. According to the White House, "kids starting kindergarten today will only know healthy school meals." Lunch trays contain more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and less saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium. Kids drink low-fat or fat-free milk, and everything is served in proper portion sizes.

But Ms. Obama says it's too soon to celebrate. “We won’t really know where we are for really another generation. This is why the anniversary tours are so important, because it gives us a reason to talk about this issue for a good week or so and get the country focused on it again.”

When I asked her if Mississippi surprised her with its decline in obesity rates, the First Lady responded, “Absolutely! We were surprised, but very proud. I was here three years ago with then-Governor Haley Barbour, and we were in some of the schools that were struggling with these challenges. And then, he was making a commitment, a personal commitment to change that health trajectory. And he and the state legislature and the school board and the superintendents -- they all rallied around to make these very meaningful changes in what kids were eating in their schools. So they were ahead of the curve on the school lunch nutrition standard changes." And, she said, "the new federal legislation made it easier for them to do what they were already trying to do."

"What makes me encouraged," she said, "is that with these changes, with watching a community come together, you can change the results. You can turn a state that was once on the bottom, and they can move their way up."

This week, Ms. Obama announced the next step in her program, the Let's Move Active Schools initiative. Its goal is to get 50,000 U.S. schools to create "active environments" in which students will get 60 minutes of physical activity each day.

Ms. Obama firmly believes that physical activity and nutrition go hand in hand with better learning.

"Watching this school and watching these kids, it's not only that they're doing things from a health perspective, but you come in here and there's a vibrancy. You could see a brightness and intelligence in their eyes. The kids were outgoing. They were engaged. They were articulate. So it’s the whole package. It’s not an either/or choice. Nutrition, physical education -- it’s the tools that kids need to learn, which is ultimately what we’re trying to do, and you can see that here in this school."

Healthier food often costs more -- which could make school lunches more expensive for working families. I asked Ms. Obama what can be done to keep costs down. She told me that new federal nutrition legislation makes some new resources available to schools that apply for grants. (As of 2012, the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act now provides a six-cent reimbursement per lunch to districts that follow the new meal requirements. According to the White House, schools can seek assistance through several other programs, including the Healthier US Schools Challenge program, Salad Bars 2 Schools and the new Let’s Move Active Schools program.)

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