07/30/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

America's Diet-Related Health Issues a Direct Result of Unequal "Access"

This post was first published on Healthy Child Healthy World.

Last week, The White House harvested its first crop yield from the organic garden First Lady Michelle Obama established on the South Lawn not long after moving to Washington. Surrounded by participating elementary school children, Obama spoke about her pride in the project, and the immense value of the lessons learned. "We can continue to make the connection between what we eat and how we feel, and how healthy we are," she said, before encouraging the children to continue to be her "little ambassadors" in their schools and communities.

President Obama recently opened the public dialogue on health care reform, but the First Lady too opened a related and long overdue dialogue: How our food, nutrition and attitudes toward eating affect America's children, and why this country can't ignore the issue of food any longer. The President has put vocal support behind preventative care as a key component of national health care reform, but has always cautioned Americans that unless we rethink our lifestyle, we will never realize a healthier society.

The First Lady's televised speech marking the harvest was the "lights, camera, action" moment many had been waiting for. Calling the health status of America's children "unacceptable", she will provide this new health imperative with strong, visible, impassioned leadership, saying "...these are issues that I care deeply about, especially when they affect America's children."

The White House garden project elated many sectors of the public sphere -- educators, pediatricians, environmentalists, food advocates, health professionals -- and dismayed a few others, like the Mid America Crop Life Association who bemoaned the absence of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. (For more, see the brilliant skewering of this particular chemical lobby on The Daily Show). But Mrs. Obama's championship of this issue, at this exact moment, is kismet. The past few months have witnessed a remarkable shift in our national, and sometimes international, food culture. Food is at the heart of a new ethical campaign, with the UK's The Guardian declaring "Food is the new fur." The recent splash of indie-darling Food, Inc., a full-length documentary about the American food conglomerate, aims to be a wake-up call to Americans about where their food comes from and how it is produced. And the global recession has led families back to the kitchen to cook and sometimes grow their own meals to save money during tense financial times.

The media can sometimes glamorize, and thus reduce, this new food movement, but in reality it speaks to the basic rights of every citizen, and awakening our consciousness to those rights. The First Lady is instructing us that our food choices matter -- in both macro and micro ways.

In her speech, Mrs. Obama rattled off some staggering statistics:

Obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high-blood pressure are all diet-related health issues that cost more than $120 billion each year.

• Nearly a one third of American children are either overweight or obese, and a third will suffer from diabetes at some point in their lifetime. In Hispanic and African American communities, nearly half of the children in those communities will suffer the same fate.

• For the first time in the history of one of the wealthiest on the planet, medical experts have warned that our younger generation may be on track to have a shorter life span than their parents as a direct result of the obesity epidemic.

As the First Lady herself said, this is absolutely unacceptable:
"But unfortunately, for too many families, limited access to healthy fruits and vegetables is often a barrier to a healthier diet. In so many of our communities, particularly in poorer and more isolated communities, fresh, healthy food is simply out of reach. With few grocery stores in their neighborhoods, residents are forced to rely on convenience stores, fast food restaurants, liquor stores, drug stores and even gas stations for their groceries. So we need to do more to address the fact that so many of our citizens live in areas where access to healthy food, and thus a healthy future, is simply out of reach."

Rather more explicitly than expected, the First Lady's message echoed Alice Waters, that good food should be a right not a privilege, and addressed the sad fact that there is exists a pervasive food inequality across America, one that cuts directly across which communities fall prey to illness and which remain healthier. The equalizer is to improve access to fresh produce in low-income communities, offer more nutritious food in school breakfast and lunch programs, and overhaul how American families eat. At the heart of the Obama organic garden is a desire to instill a new relationship between children, and eventually their families, and food.

While we can easily agree that all Americans should have access to good food, many feel that heightening nutrition awareness in the land of the Big Mac and extolling exercise to the creators of the "lap band" is folly. The dollar figure behind the costly effects of unhealthy lifestyles is staggering, and I've often felt (rather cynically) that if more people were aware of how much money our poor habits were costing us, their sensibilities would kick in on turbo gear. But The New York Times recently reported on the resurgence of rooftop city gardens, and a burgeoning movement of urbanites determined to produce their own food despite concrete jungles. Many were inspired by Mrs. Obama's green thumb, others motivated by wallets less thickly lined than they once were. Whatever the motivation or the fortunate convergence of events, the Obamas personify change -- their mantra remains that with awareness and education, people can make conscious choices to do more and live better.

In these conversations about food, many feel that this preventative health dialogue is a direct response to years of government inaction. What will happen when the reverse is true? It marks an auspicious time for the First Lady to tackle a national rethink on one of our most basic actions -- the way we eat and take care of ourselves. Let us all applaud and support Mrs. Obama as she takes a leadership role in establishing a healthier tomorrow for America's children.