If you find yourself pleasantly surprised at Walmart or enjoying the new menu at Olive Garden, guess who you may have to thank?
Except perhaps for her televised fitness contest demonstration, in which she challenged Late Night comedian and host Jimmy Fallon to a push-up contest in the State Dining Room and a sack race in the East Room, Michelle Obama appears to be largely a traditional First Lady.
Which is to say, she is highly political, media savvy and ambitious to use her influence to have an impact, in a powerful yet incalculable manner: change the way people think about food.
Every President and First Lady has their moment in the sun, but once they exit the spotlight and personal memories of them dim, their persona solidifies into a personage. Simply by the attrition of time, these familiar names are forgotten. Having one’s legacy well remembered is even more of a challenge for First Ladies; since it is ultimately just one component of their husband’s Administration, no matter how much a First Lady may accomplish, it can never overcome how much the President did not.
Yet even among those who were married to Presidents never consistently rated among the “greats” some stand out simply by the power of their magnetic personalities. Even the greatest defenders of Rutherford Hayes, Grover Cleveland or Calvin Coolidge, for example, will concede that the personable engagement with the public engendered by their wives left a more permanent impression than did the policies of those presidents.
A blending of fortitude and foresight have made a rare, few First Ladies legends in their own right, a status earned by initiating a tangible accomplishment perceived as a nonpartisan benefit to the nation, and responding to crisis in a manner that personified an idealized virtue while retaining a humanity all people could relate to. Memorable among them are Dolley Madison, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jacqueline Kennedy and Betty Ford.
The most demonstrative impact of a First Lady’s influence on a nation, however, may well be the most paradoxical. It may mean that the immediacy of their specific words and deeds in carrying out a mission of change will be forgotten along with their name but that the incalculable form of change they implored a nation to adopt does eventually seep into the collective conscientiousness.
Polls might gauge how a nation’s specific views on a person or an issue, but it cannot pin down the unconscious influences that lead them to such views. This form is the easiest of all to dismiss as being a result of a First Lady’s influence because it is subtle, pervasive and in a state of evolution, once begun at a start point by her.
And that’s why, except for a few dozen historians, labor union leaders know nothing about Nellie Taft influencing her husband to enact by presidential proclamation the very first health and safety measures in the federal workplace, or animal rights advocates are ignorant of Florence Harding’s radical, pioneering exhortations for animal protection laws and financial support of anti-vivisection in the early 1920s, or even today’s thirty-somethings who were adopted in the mid-1990s have no idea that Hillary Clinton piloted comprehensive adoption reform legislation.
Whether it was seeking to influence a Presidents, Cabinet member, Congress or Governors and endorse legislation or to impact the awareness of the nation’s people, that’s the way most First Ladies would want it.
Ultimately, it was less about their getting personal credit.
If the changes they sought to initiate took root, they’d fulfilled what they saw as obligation to the nation.
When Michelle Obama spoke last year to C-Span for its weekly series on all of her predecessors, she admitted that she couldn’t quite relate to First Ladies of the distant past, whose portraits line the walls of the place she calls home.
It was more recent ones, Eleanor Roosevelt and Jackie Kennedy were examples she mentioned, with lives more like her own, that spoke to her, figuratively.
It has been her immediate predecessors, however, who have spoken to her, literally.
During the first five years of the Obama Administration, Michelle Obama has had time with each of her five living predecessors individually and as a group: Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush.
Whether or not the challenges faced in the position which they all shared is a frequent topic of discussion she has had with them, the way in which they approached aspects of the First Lady role has certainly served as a blueprint for the way she wanted to interpret it for herself.
If Michelle Obama has adapted methods of previous First Ladies in publicizing their “projects,” she also came to chose the leading issue of the four she’s undertaken the same way they did.
Jackie Kennedy’s historical refurbishing of the White House was inspired by her own first, disappointed tour of the mansion as a child.
Barbara Bush’s focus on eradicating adult illiteracy came through her son Marvin’s dyslexia.
Betty Ford’s advocacy of the Equal Rights Amendment was forged during a first marriage when she realized she made less than male co-workers.
Michelle Obama took on childhood obesity and nutrition after facing its implications in her own home, before her husband’s election.
And few First Ladies have so diligently and methodically used their influence to begin having so subtle but certain an impact on national life.
She had no cook to make meals for her children. She prepared their food and did the best she could, since she was also working at the University of Chicago Hospital. “It was a life that most working parents are dealing with,” she explained in 2011, “where you’re juggling jobs and trying to get kids to and from and you’re trying to make life easier…probably eating out more and moving less.”
There were enough occasions where her daughters filled up on junk food and it was easier to let them watch T.V. instead of go out and exercise. Then Michelle Obama had a wake-up call, explaining to PBS in 2010:
“As a result of this lifestyle, my pediatrician pointed out some changes in my kids’ body mass index that he just sort of checked us on. And I hadn’t even thought about it…I made some pretty minor changes over a period of months, and saw what the doctor said were pretty remarkable changes, that he usually didn’t see in his practice, which is a predominantly African-American, urban practice.
So he was pretty floored by how quickly you could turn the tide on this issue with – by just removing juices from lunchboxes and cooking a little bit more, maybe one or two more meals, turning the TV off a little bit more, limiting desserts to the weekends. I mean these were really not major lifestyle overhauls.
So when I came here, I thought, if it can be that simple, it’s all about lack of information and lack of focus on the issue. So I wanted to use the first lady spotlight to shine the light on this issue for many families that are struggling with this issue…I do have the platform to lead an effort to pull all of these resources together and, again, shine a spotlight on this issue in a way that I couldn’t do as a regular mom on the South Side of Chicago.”
Worthy as it was, the new First Lady’s intention of starting a national dialogue on childhood obesity and nutrition would never have captured public interest, however, had it not first grown from the presidential mansion, in the form of a vegetable garden.
American have always kept a propriety interest in the old place and lifestyle journalists who knew not their safflower from cottonseed, clamored for a gander at the new, long-limned youthful First Lady in muddy boots and jeans planting cauliflower.
For a year, as the press fed the public tidbits about what on the President’s table came from his garden, his wife was using the setting as an open-air national forum, sharing in her informal remarks some of the truth about what the nation was facing: one out of three American children are clinically obese; over $140 billion is spent annually on obesity-related medical issues like diabetes, cancer and heart disease; obesity had become one of the leading national health crises; appearance of proper weight is not necessarily evidence of nutritious eating and necessary exercise.
Slowly, her staff reached out to enlist support in a public information campaign for teachers, parents and children began, eventually building a network of alliance among governors, mayors, the American Academy of Pediatrics, church organizations and community centers, and food-providers for school-lunch programs.
Like all First Ladies who were successful in seeing their projects eventually have an impact through federal legislation, Michelle Obama formed an important alliance with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. At his direction, the USDA became the unofficial government sponsor of the First Lady’s short-term initiatives and long-range goals.
Throughout 2009, she stuck close to home, always using the White House vegetable garden as a platform to introduce elements of her program, the fruits of her labors reflected in the stages of the garden itself through the months of the seasons, planting, weeding and watering, a first summer reward of tasting the first crop of produce and then offering simple food preparation lessons in the White House kitchen, the autumn harvest.
To those only interested in what she was wearing, however, it simply seemed like a fashion show set in a vegetable garden. Those who failed to hear the nuance in her evolving message rushed to judgment with cynicism. How was teaching kids a parsnip from a turnip going to reverse obesity trends?
Even she admitted, in retrospect recently, “I wondered to myself whether we could really make a difference, because when you take on a problem this big and this complicated, at times it can be a little overwhelming.”
Yet just as she had methodically vetted the effect of her husband’s 2008 candidacy on her family life, she insisted on pacing the unfolding of her project, stage by stage. She disciplined herself to stay on each enlarging message, even if it seemed like a minor point at the moment.
And, implicit in that enlarging message was one encouraging nutrition and exercise to bring a new level of physical health and well-being beyond children, to Americans of every age.
She was especially sensitive to the economic hardship the country was enduring at the time she assumed her position. The First Lady emphasized that her efforts laid no blame on parents for what they chose to fed their families but simply to inform their choices. Perhaps most importantly, she made clear how aware she was that not everyone had access to a Whole Foods, let alone afford to buy a healthy jicama salad there:
“This initiative has to deal with talking to parents in a way that makes sense, eliminating the accessibility and affordability issues in this country so that when we start talking about solutions, they are solutions that all families can access – and not just the lucky few….We certainly can’t ask parents who are living in the midst of food deserts without the resources to buy the products and the items for their families, we definitely can’t put them into that trick bag of telling them that they need to do something that is completely out of their reach.”
Certainly, the apparent rise of more farmer markets in urban areas was one potential solution, but hardly the sort of thing that a president’s wife could have any influence over, except to encourage those that did spring up. The availability and then the cost of healthy food to low-income families was a good example of the sort of problematic issue which arose during her first year on the project and emerged as an important one to more deeply address.
By now, it was clear that the First Lady’s “feel-good” project was not some drifty campaign to shine her image, timed to peter out of steam just as the Administration was ending. As she began her second year as First Lady, she unveiled the next phase of what was becoming a distinct endeavor.
Helping to give shape to the overall objectives and its various components was consultant and former Obama campaign media expert Stephanie Cutler.
With the goal of ensuring future generation of children, those born after 2010, of growing up with both nutritional eating and physical activity as a natural given in their lives, rather than something which had to be introduced while in grade school, the project was formally branded, dubbed “Let’s Move!”
Her East Wing staff counted many with Capitol Hill experience, surely a helpful factor in the process of enacting federal legislation. The first step of that process began on February 9, 2010, the day she got the President to commission the Task Force on Childhood Obesity.
It ordered several federal departments to review existing nutritional guidelines and streamline various government nutritional programs already existing, and devise by May of that year a series of objectives to be met along the path to legislative initiated by the Obama Administration.
Unexpected support for the public awareness campaign on obesity even came from the Defense Department.
So many members of the armed services were enlisting in poor health conditions due to obesity that it was no exaggeration when the Pentagon suggested that obesity was becoming a matter of national security.
By year’s end, there was the First Lady looking over the President’s shoulder as he signed the federal legislation inspired by her effort, the Child Nutrition Bill of 2010. Even amid partisan contention, the bill sailed through Congress.
The impact on 32 million children was immediate.
New guidelines now determined what types of food could be served as part of the free lunch programs in schools or sold in vending machines there. The weekly amount of produce was doubled. Breads made only of whole grains could be offered. Milk must be low-fat or non-fat. Water must also be made available. A range of caloric intake per portion was put in place, variable according to age. There was also finally an increase in the amount which the federal government reimburses schools for the meals, the first rise since the 1980s.
With “Let’s Move!” officially launched, and the legislation passed, the First Lady took off around the country more often in 2011 and 2012, to focus public attention on the change in school lunches, highlight their progress and get a personal sense of what didn’t work.
Hoping to provide further incentive, the Department of Agriculture created a Healthier U.S. Schools Challenge, intended to reward those schools which were national exemplars in carrying out the objectives of the bill.
It also simplified the old food pyramid system with a diagram called MyPlate, to provide an easier way for parents to ensure that they were providing proper nutritional balance, Mrs. Obama saying its much easier now: one can even follow a basic rule that half of all food served at meals consist of vegetables and fruit.
Available instructors, insurance and other factors, however, continue to mitigate the other half of the problem: the need for physical exercise and activity. This component cannot be regulated by law.
In 2012 her first book was published, American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America.
She promoted the book with a national tour of school gardens which used her own as a model, the cultivating of which served the double purpose of engaging the kids in the physical activities of preparing land, planting and harvesting. Beyond planting and harvesting, however, she also got moving herself.
While she continues to use the White House to encourage and lead groups of visiting students in physical activities other than sports, the purpose of many of her domestic trips is to lead exercise forums and clinics hosted in communities. She also branched into other media to carry her message encouraging movement.
She began a round of appearing on national television shows, from midday talk shows with mass viewership of women to children’s entertainment programs like Sesame Street and iCarly, and also taping PSAs from the White House.
Amid the 2012 re-election campaign, the First Lady also took to Twitter, tweeting from her own account set up by the campaign.
Since then, she has continued to tweet under the handle of FLOTUS. However brief her messages, it has proven to be an effective method of direct communication with the public, a sort of 21st century equivalent of Eleanor Roosevelt’s daily newspaper column, My Day.
Well aware of the fact too that not everyone has the option or inclination to plant vegetable gardens, Michelle Obama soon targeted manufacturers of packaged foods and drinks.
Her comfort in command of the board rooms has meant she often personally requested significant changes from manufacturers themselves, seeing the “need to keep pushing every step of the way.”
She won pledges from the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the American Beverage Association to create new labels making clear in uniform terminology the sugar, fat and other unhealthy ingredients as well as calorie intake on their products.
Nor did she ignore restaurant chains where high-caloric choices are often the bulk of menu choices. Chains Red Lobster and Olive Garden, to name but two, have pledged to nutritionally improve their children’s menus.
The National Restaurant Association has also agreed to comport with new laws requiring chains to print calorie and nutritional information alongside each choice on menus and sodium reductions.
Her corporate push has also led to a commitment, most notably, from the nation’s leading retailer of everything, including food, Walmart. Food sales from the Walmart chain compose an astounding fifteen percent of the entire American grocery industry.
No matter how much the promise from retailers on new packaging of its processed food would clarify what people are eating, they are still eating it. Along those lines, the First Lady won from Walmart two far bigger promises. Walmart has pledged to change the ingredient formula of each product for an overall reduction of fat, sodium and sugar levels, and to slash the retail price of all the fresh produce it sold.
If this was a start in addressing the ongoing problem of “affordability” Michelle Obama spoke about early on in her effort, Walmart also joined other large-chains like Walgreen’s and Target in an initial attempt to answer the problem of “accessibility.” In under-served, lower-income, high-density population areas, the consortium began plans to expand and renovate existing stores and build new ones to ensure that fresh produce is made available in these “food deserts,” as the USDA dubs them.
Some find fault in her associating with non-union Walmart which, by building its all-in-one megastores displaces independent grocers and other local retailers. Or the fact that no matter how much improved Walmart’s processed foods might become, it is still processed foods.
Michelle Obama takes a more realistic approach focusing again on what is available and affordable to most Americans: “This isn’t about demonizing any industry…this isn’t about moving the ball 100 percent, because 20 percent worth of changes can change the nature of the statistics in some pretty meaningful ways.”
Certainly, one reason for her continued success is that from its very inception she did not want her project to be simply a government solution, or even one reliant on the private sector. In language which spoke even to Tea Partiers, the First Lady places equal responsibility for consequence on the choices made by individuals, seeking to convince consumers to also blast emails, sign petitions, speak to restaurant managers and chain-store buyers about offering healthier-quality food: “We’re the ones that set the demand. So if we’re asking our food producers and our restaurant chains, the companies that sell us food and market to us, if we’re changing that demand curve they’re going to follow us.”
Is all the effort Michelle Obama has been expending for the last five years adding up?
A recent Washington Post survey conducted with the Kaiser Family Foundation has determined that 80 percent of those Americans polled knew about the First Lady’s intentions, whether it was the nutritional components regulated by the 2010 law or the physical activity she can only encourage.
More than one-third of those polled know “a lot about it.”
The large-chain store consortium, going forward with its promise to begin serving “food desert” areas, had nearly 1,5oo stores slated for renovation or construction as of last year, intending to provide fresh produce for sale at affordable prices for about 9.5 million Americans.
According to 2014 findings of a University of North Carolina’s Robert Wood Johnson Foundation study, Kraft, Pepsi, General Mills and other national leading manufacturers of processed foods have cut an astounding degree of caloric sugars and fats, almost four times the amount which they pledged they would in support of the First Lady’s initiatives. This has resulted in an average of 78 less calories sold daily to each American citizen, the equivalence of about a cookie a day, and a reduction of 8 pounds annually.
During her meeting with Walmart executives, Mrs. Obama proudly piped up, “We are seeing a fundamental shift in our national conversation about how we make and sell food.”
People might argue whether a First Lady has a right to lead such an effort, but it can’t be denied that clearly Michelle Obama is having an impact on the nation beyond clothes and carrots.
Perhaps the surest sign that she’s had a significant impact on the Pop Culture is her making headlines in The Onion.
The satirical newspaper reported that in reaction to all the new food labeling on nutrition and calories, McDonald’s unveiled a new line of burger wrappers, french-fries envelopes and giant soda cups.
It was carrying the stern image of a “disproving First Lady.”
In truth, any sustained effort by a First Lady resulting in a shift of thinking across the country can’t help but become so associated with her that it is soon enough defines their public persona.
The unblinking focus Michelle Obama employs to produce tangible results finds one particular parallel, however, in the incumbent First Lady at the time of her birth fifty years ago, Lady Bird Johnson.
Just as Michelle Obama refuses to be distracted by national security spying debates or partisan contention on health care reform engulfing her husband, Lady Bird Johnson managed to register personal approval of LBJ’s civil rights fight and cautious support of his controversial Vietnam War policy without losing focus on her spectrum of environmental issues.
Lady Bird was never fond of its branding as “Beautification” but giving her broad agenda a label helped define its drive and purpose; significantly Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move,” is the only other FLOTUS campaign given a name (Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” was unwittingly adopted well after she’d begun her anti-drug use educational effort).
Mrs. Johnson’s work involved the same components found in Mrs. Obama’s: a strong Cabinet ally (Interior Secretary Stewart Udall), limited federal legislation (The Highway Beautification Act, forest conservation, National Parks accessibility), catchy celebrity-support photo ops (posing with Lassie to drop waste in a basket and “Don’t be a Litterbug”) and voluntary corporate compliance (local utility companies and Esso gas stations burying overhead power-lines and gas).
Also the mother to two young daughters in the White House, Lady Bird Johnson’s professional experience as the chief executive officer of her family-held media conglomerate gave her the discipline and confidence to steadily succeed, even against the jibes of comedians and cartoonists, and the powerful advertising lobby.
So distinct to recent collective memory are images of Michelle Obama doing things like dancing or gathering lettuce, that it’s likely most Americans don’t realize what experience this “mom-in-chief” brought to the White House.
Michelle Obama was a marketing and intellectual property attorney, an Assistant Commissioner of Planning and Development, an Executive Director of Public Allies which mentored youth in non-profit and government jobs, a university Associate Dean of Student Services who founded a Community Service Center, and then its External Affairs Vice President, and a medical center Community Affairs Executive Director.
And very much like the intelligent Mrs. Johnson, Mrs. Obama keeps one eye on history’s ticking clock of time.
Recently, Michelle Obama has also announced her objective of seeing more American students complete their formal educations to graduation, adding to a roster of three other projects she’s focused on as First Lady.
These include “Joining Forces,” which provides more federal support and private-sector aid for the education, employment, housing and other needs of U.S. military service member families, an ongoing Mentoring Program which exposes classes of Washington area students to professionals in various fields, and encouraging volunteers in Days of Service, such as on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
Still, it will be the child nutrition and anti-obesity project by which history will largely judge her.
With only three more years in the White House, it may well be that Michelle Obama won’t quite see the impact of her influence until she is a former First Lady. Many of her predecessors have found that their White House projects become a lifelong mission. It seems likely Michelle Obama will as well. As Barbara Bush did to continue her White House efforts to eradicate family illiteracy, Michelle Obama has also established a private, non-profit Partnership for a Healthier America foundation so that her work can continue after 2017.
With the original inspiration for her anti-obesity project, her two teenage daughters, now increasingly outgrowing the need for direct parental supervision of their daily meals, Michelle Obama also seems to be unwittingly following a another common pattern of her predecessors.
As the President recently bemoaned, their daughters are increasingly finding the propulsion for their lives outside of the one shared with their parents to a more socialized schedule shared with their friends.
Perhaps its no coincidence then that like Grace Coolidge who was often accompanied to events in the White House over which she presided with her white collie Rob Roy, Michelle Obama increasingly makes public appearances with two other young individuals she’s cultivated a relationship with. The First Family’s first dog Bo, and the younger Sunny.
And while some have suggested that pictures of her challenging Jimmy Fallon, again, to a rope-pulling contest in the staid, old Diplomatic Reception Room is startlingly unbecoming to their idea of a First Lady, they forget that she’s doing all of it to demonstrate her own commitment to her cause.
And they likely have a poor sense of history.
After all, it was only forty years ago that a First Lady perceived as the very model of political wife decorum, Pat Nixon, got down on her knees, held her hand over her contracted abdominal muscles and joined in a women’s health day demonstration of something called “yoga.”
In the Diplomatic Reception Room of all places.