Tuesday, October 18, 2011

First Lady Lauds America's Educators As "Unsung Heroes" In Battle Against Childhood Obesity

Mrs. Obama throws a Let's Move! party: A thousand guests attend South Lawn celebration for HealthierUS School Challenge...
It was a festive atmosphere on the very sunny South Lawn on Monday afternoon as First Lady Michelle Obama welcomed about 1,000 school officials from across the US to a party that celebrated her goal of doubling the number of schools enrolled in the HealthierUS School Challenge in a year. The original goal was 1,250 schools, but it has now been surpassed: There are actually 1,631 schools certified in the program, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced to the cheering crowd. He stood beside Mrs. Obama as she offered words of praise to the school cafeteria professionals, nutrition directors and principals, and hailed their efforts to serve healthy food and encourage fitness as something that will have an impact for generations to come. (Above: Mrs. Obama with Vilsack and 6th grader Alex Roman, who introduced her)

"You’re affecting the choices they’re going to make for the rest of their lives," Mrs. Obama, clad in a pink, sleeveless dress with black accents, said. "You’re affecting not just how these kids feed themselves, but how they’re going to feed their own children."

"We can affect who they will be forever," Mrs. Obama added. "And that is truly, truly powerful stuff."

The Administration estimates that many children get up to half of their daily calories at school, a major problem when one in three children is overweight or obese. The Challenge, a cornerstone of the Let's Move! campaign, is a program run by USDA that rewards schools participating in the National School Lunch Program for voluntarily adopting healthy USDA standards for foods served in cafeterias, and for providing students with nutrition education and opportunities for physical activity. Prizes are cash grants and plaques, at four levels of achievement: Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Gold with Distinction.

"In our movement to end the epidemic of childhood obesity in America, all of you -- our nation’s educators -- you are the unsung heroes," Mrs. Obama said. "I get a lot of accolades and everybody is like, 'First Lady, you're doing a great job.' But you all are doing the real work on the ground."

USDA has had the Challenge in place since 2004, but until Mrs. Obama threw down the gauntlet to double the number a year ago, participation had flatlined. Transforming school nutrition environments is hard work.

Paula Warner (l) Child Nutrition Supervisor for the Iberville Parish School District in Louisiana, is one of the unsung heroes. She was at the White House because four of her eight schools won the Gold Award with Distinction. Warner took on elementary school kids first, but getting them to eat their vegetables was initially a tough road, she said.

“So we put the broccoli in a casserole; we served it with low fat cheese and low fat cream sauce and they eat it," Warner said. Still, kids are ready for change, she added, which is a tenet of Mrs. Obama's campaign.

“They are less indoctrinated and it’s easier to influence their eating habits,” said Warner.

The district now substitutes Romaine lettuce for Iceberg lettuce: It's more colorful and it has more nutrients, Warner said. The kids no longer notice that they're eating brown rice instead of white rice. And though hot dogs are still on the menu, they have been shorn of some fat and salt.

“The cost of doing all this was negligible,” Warner said. “Besides, when you consider health care costs it’s worth it.”

That's Mrs. Obama's point, too. It doesn't cost a lot to ensure that kids are being raised in an environment that's as healthy as possible. And it can happen no matter what kind of school kids attend.

"You’ve shown us that there is no one way to win this award," Mrs. Obama said. "You come from urban, suburban, rural communities. You come from schools that are big and small...There is no one-size-fits-all solution here."

The First Lady ticked off the achievements of the Let's Move! campaign to date: 3,000 citizen chefs enrolled in the Chefs Move to Schools initiative, which marries professional chefs to public schools; 800 salad bars awarded through the Let's Move Salad Bars to Schools project; community and school gardens being planted all over the US; running and fitness clubs at schools; schools sending out monthly nutrition newsletters.

"I've been out there visiting you, and it is real. You all are willing to do whatever it takes to help our kids," Mrs. Obama said. That's why the White House "rolled out the red carpet" for the party, she said. The First Lady urged the school officials to share information and get to know each other better, and to bring along schools in their home districts that might be struggling and need assistance.

"Hopefully, today is the beginning of many, many excellent relationships that will continue to build," Mrs. Obama said. "So get to know each other. Because this [the Challenge] is a competition that every school in America can win."

There are plenty of schools left that can meet the Challenge: USDA says that nearly 95,000 schools are involved in the National School Lunch Program, which feeds 32 million kids. The National School Breakfast Program feeds about 11 million kids.

A huge apple, made of hundreds of (faux) apples recycled from Thursday's State Dinner decorations, stood in the center of the South Lawn. Guests were encouraged to put notes on top of it, with creative ideas for boosting the health environment at schools. They gathered around, adding their tips, and posing for photos. The Washington Monument loomed in the background. (Above: The "Idea Apple")

Let's Move! team meets with guests...
It was a very busy party: Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives Sam Kass worked the crowd, as did Let's Move! Executive Director Dr. Judy Palfrey. At a prep table, Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses and Assistant Pastry Chef Susie Morrison demonstrated how to make Healthy Fruit and Oat Snack Bars (the recipe is here).

Members of the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition mingled with the school pros, including co-chair and Olympic gymnastics gold medalist Dominique Dawes and Cornell McClellan, the President and Mrs. Obama's personal trainer. They spoke to guests about the PALA Challenge. The guests were given tours of the Kitchen Garden, still cordoned off from this weekend's Fall Garden Tours. (Above: Kass and Dawes speak with visitors)

Guests were also treated to the rollicking musical stylings of two military bands: The Marines' Own Free Country, and the Navy's Country Current. Huge baskets of apples and other healthy treats were on offer, under white tents with White House butlers providing service.

"I'm so proud of you all, so excited. Just keep doing what you're doing, and we'll be right there with you every step of the way," Mrs. Obama said as she finished her remarks.

The First Lady shook hands, gave hugs, and posed for photos with the guests before going back inside the residence. The band continued to play after she left, and the guests continued to mingle. (Above: Marines' Own Free Country plays)

*Click here for a full transcript and video of the First Lady's remarks.

*Click here to read more about the HealthierUS Schools Challenge and recent developments in the federal nutrition program.

*Photos by Obama Foodorama; with additional reporting by Marian Burros.

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