Michelle Obama Talks Obesity With Jon Meacham

Last week first lady Michelle Obama challenged grocery manufacturers to rethink their products and how they're marketed to kids. She spoke about her Let's Move initiative with NEWSWEEK's Jon Meacham at the magazine's Executive Forum in Washington. Excerpts:

What is government's role in these issues?
There's no expert that will tell you that having government tell people what to do is going to make a difference. At the federal level, we can highlight and inform. There are things that we can do with the FDA, for example, working with food manufacturers to have better package labeling. We can try to get more groceries in underserved communities. We can make sure that we pass legislation that gets us a strong nutrition-authorization act so that we get better food in our schools. But I think the real work happens on the ground. It's our governors, our mayors, our schools, our communities. You've got teachers who are redesigning play spaces, and they are getting kids Hula-Hooping and jumping rope. They've created requirements where teachers have to eat lunch with the kids, and they've seen vegetable and fruit consumption go up—not just with the kids but with the teachers as well.

What would you think about a warning label on Twinkies or Froot Loops?
You know, that strikes me as extreme, because a Twinkie is not a cigarette. And what parents need is just information about what's in the Twinkie and how much of this can we eat. It's not that we can't have the Twinkie, you know? And our kids would be pretty upset, and I am not supporting that. I'm all in favor of good snacks. We grew up with snacks and chips. But we have to exercise more. Parents have to understand what's in the Twinkie. So we don't need a warning, we need information that's easy to understand. You know, you read labels now, and it's, like, the small print, and it's chemicals, you can't even pronounce them. And the portion sizes [are hard to] compare. And then you don't know what to buy and how much to give to your kids. That's the kind of information that families need. And I think that the grocery-store manufacturers have been magnificent. And I know that there are those who say, well, are they going to really make changes? Look, the people who run those companies are parents and grandparents, too. It's really up to us as the parents and the consumers to change the demand. They will make what we tell them we want to buy. And if we want healthier foods for our kids, and that's what we're purchasing, our power will shift their market. We don't need the warning labels. We just need common sense and good information.

Twinkies are safe in the Obama administration. [Laughter]
Yes, I think I feel good going on record saying that. [Laughter]

Where do you stand on a tax for sugary beverages?
You know, the Let's Move initiative doesn't involve a tax, but there are communities that believe that taxing sodas and other things works for them.

How does obesity affect classroom learning?
We know what happens to kids when they are hyped up on sugar and they're operating on too much sugar and not enough substance. So you just imagine if you send a kid to school with a sugary breakfast and a sugary drink, and they have to learn for a few hours, and they stop maybe for 10 minutes for lunch and they haven't had a chance to run off that energy, and then they start dropping because they are coming down from all that sugar. And they don't even know it. So it definitely affects how kids feel throughout the day, which is something that we have to remember. This issue is not about looks and appearance. This is about how our kids feel. And how they feel about themselves. Because how you feel inside affects the way you approach the day. Even the way you tackle the challenge. If you feel like you're full and you've eaten some fruit and you've gotten some grains, that affects the way you think. This is truly an overall health issue. And kids, in addition to needing to eat well, have to run. They have to get the energy out.

How will you measure success?
The whole goal of this initiative is to end the problem of childhood obesity in a generation. We want kids born today to grow up at a healthy weight. And it will take a generation to see how that's going. Fundamentally, we have to change the way we view food and health forever. And we can start with kids because their habits haven't been ingrained. We can shift the way they think, even the way they taste food. We can do that. Us grown-ups—not so much. [Laughter] We're a little stuck in our ways. And so even though we as parents haven't conquered it, we can still help our kids get to a different place. And it's going to take time, and it's going to take patience, and we're going to need everyone involved.