Mrs. Obama in the pulpit

Mrs. Obama in the pulpit

February 11th, 2011 in Opinion Times

Michelle Obama, the president's wife, does not have an official post in government. She does, however, have what President Theodore Roosevelt called a "bully pulpit" -- a position that provides her with an opportunity to expound her views. She's not afraid to make her views known. The first lady's campaign to promote healthier eating choices, to encourage people to exercise and to eliminate or reduce childhood obesity within a generation has elicited a remarkably positive response.

Mrs. Obama's highly visible campaign -- a year old this week -- has had its share of triumphs. The White House fruit and vegetable garden, initially derided as a stunt by some, proved to be far more than that. The garden served a useful purpose. It inspired many Americans, including school kids, to plant and to tend gardens -- and then to eat the healthy, fresh food that the plots produced.

The first lady's advocacy is far-reaching. She's talked with governors, mayors, school leaders and others about the dangers of obesity and a national diet heavy in salt, sugars and fats. She's called for better labeling on food products. She's urged community leaders to build sidewalks, bike paths and playgrounds so those who want to exercise can do so in safe and convenient places. Mrs. Obama's involvement and travel -- she was in Atlanta earlier this week -- on behalf of healthier lifestyles have served as a call to action.

Her interest likely helped convince Wal-Mart, which currently controls about 15 percent of the nation's grocery business, to agree to lower prices on fresh fruits and vegetables and to work with its providers to reduce the amount of fat, sugar and salt in the foods in the packaged foods it sells. The retailer also agreed to build stores in or near some of the nation's so-called "food deserts" -- neighborhoods that have little or no access to healthy foods at any price. Currently, those who live in the "deserts" have no choice other than packaged or fast foods high in fat, salt and sugar.

Wal-Mart alone won't resolve the problems that concern Mrs. Obama, but the chain's agreement to address them certainly is a step in the right direction. So is word that beverage makers and food manufacturers are voluntarily redesigning product labels so they contain useful nutrition information. An informed shopper is more likely to make healthy choices at the store than one that does not have sufficient information at hand.

Restaurants are next on Mrs. Obama's list. She wants them to offer healthier meals -- especially for children. That's a reasonable goal.

There are those -- Sarah Palin, for example -- who have bad-mouthed Mrs. Obama's health-related campaigns. That's silly talk. Given the rising number of U.S. children and adults who are obese and coping with ailments like high blood pressure and diabetes, the effort to promote healthy diet and exercise choices is a sound one.

Besides, it's not the first time a president's wife has used her status to call the nation's attention to an important issue. Betty Ford's frank talk about breast cancer probably saved thousands of lives. Nancy Reagan's anti-drug campaign and Laura Bush's promotion of literacy touched millions, too. Mrs. Obama's call for a healthier lifestyle is firmly in the activist tradition of recent first ladies.