Fairhill Elementary School eighth graders Kendall Barrott and Gregory Leach shifted with excitement in their seats in the school cafeteria as they waited for First Lady Michelle Obama to take the stage.
Obama visited the North Philadelphia school Friday to discuss her “Let’s Move” initiative, a nationwide campaign to prevent childhood obesity.
Governor Ed Rendell – whom Obama called “Mr. Svelte” for having slimmed down considerably since last seeing him - Mayor Michael Nutter, and State Representative Dwight Evans also came out to hear her message and lend support to the campaign. But it was clearly the kids who got the biggest kick out of having Mrs. Obama at their school.
“I am excited because we get to meet the first lady and we get to hear more about having a (good) diet,” Kendall said. Gregory described her visit as being “cool” and gave examples of how Fairhill is already on the right track to promoting nutrition and wellness for its nearly 600 students.
“Our school lunches have grapes, strawberries, oranges, and turkey and ham sandwiches,” he said.
Obama chose to tout her healthy eating campaign at Fairhill because of its successful focus on nutrition. The event was a nice boost for a school that recently was put on the Renaissance Alert list. Fairhill, where nearly 90 percent of its students receive free or reduced-priced lunch, works with the local nonprofit organization the Food Trust to keep its menus healthy.
It’s this kind of commitment and focus on providing healthy food choices for children that Obama said she is interested in duplicating across the country.
“This is an issue of great concern for me not just because I’m first lady of this country, but because I’m a mother,” said Obama before a crowd of about 300 attendees. “I care about my kids and all of our kids, so ‘Let’s Move’ is a nationwide campaign to rally this country around one single, but ambitious goal – and that is to end the epidemic of childhood obesity in a generation so that the kids born today can grow up with a healthy weight.”
Let’s Move is a four-pronged initiative that will put more nutritious foods in schools, give parents tools and information needed to make healthy choices for their kids, provide avenues for kids to be more active in and out of school, and ensure that all families have access to healthy affordable food right in their own communities.
Obama said that far too many kids are eating foods high in sugar, fat, and salt and not enough fresh vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. She said that the persistence of so-called “food deserts” also contributes to the problem of obesity. These are neighborhoods and communities that don’t have supermarkets, thus forcing families to purchase unhealthy foods from convenience stores and off the shelves of gas station minimarts because they are the only available options.
Obama said that there are “23.5 million Americans, including 6.5 million children who live on food deserts.” But through this campaign, Washington is doing something about it.
Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, both of whom joined the first lady on stage, spoke about the Obama administration’s $400 million Healthy Food Financing Initiative, an effort to mobilize private and nonprofit sectors to bring grocery stores and other healthy food retailers to underserved communities across the country.
“We’re here to make sure that all communities have a chance to shop at green grocers selling healthy food and we’re devoting $250 million toward new market tax credits to provide powerful incentives for private investors to take a chance on projects like a new healthy grocery store in distressed communities,” Geithner said.
Through Let’s Move, Obama said the goal is to “eliminate food deserts in America completely in seven years.”
Earlier in the day Obama walked the aisles of Fresh Grocer, a $15 million store that opened its doors at Progress Plaza in North Philadelphia last December through a public-private partnership formed to increase the number of supermarkets in underserved communities.
The Healthy Food Financing Initiative is modeled on an initiative that Pennsylvania embarked upon six years ago when it invested $30 million in fresh food financing to fund 83 supermarkets in 34 counties. Obama said those enterprises have brought nutritious foods to more than 400,000 people and created jobs for local residents.
“We want to replicate your success here in Pennsylvania all across America,” she said.
“If you can do it here,” she enthusiastically told the crowd. “We can do it around the country.”