Anna at Jezebel has a post up praising Michelle Obama’s campaign against childhood obesity, now that the plan has been released. Anna’s happy with it, as she should be, since the plan—to no one’s great surprise, I hope—focuses on the causes of childhood obesity and not on shaming as some great motivator. It’s a four part plan, focused on healthy schools, exercise, programs to increase the quality of food children eat, and better food labeling. (The last is probably the least useful idea, surprisingly. The research I’ve seen indicates that very few consumers actually use the labels. Which surprises me, as a big time label reader.) But what I’m interested in is less the specifics of the plan, which are pretty obvious, and more what it means that Michelle Obama picked this.
On one hand, this project neatly fits in to a long history of First Lady projects that focus on acceptably feminine, domestic concerns involving children. Any hopes that Michelle Obama would abandon that tradition should have been put to bed long before Barack took the oath of office, because they’re quite aware of how treating Hillary Clinton as more than a very prominent junior leaguer created endless amounts of angst from avid misogynists who freak out at the drop of a hat. But what I find interesting is that despite the fact that her project is firmly ensconced in this tradition, she’s still managing to use her project to advocate for the legislative agenda of health care reform. The whole point of this is to make the administration seem like they’re All About Healthy Americans, with Michelle Obama working on children and prevention while the President and Congress (in theory) move on the insurance front.
In a way, this is kind of sad, because this is one of the few places where prevention and cost control are still central to the discussion. I remember way back when Barack Obama was trying to sell health care reform because it would save us money in the long run, and keep Medicare solvent by controlling exploding costs. And that discussion has been shoved aside, in part because assholes like Sarah Palin have characterized cost controlling as “death panels”, while also screaming about exploding costs. (When you’re a wingnut, you get to have it both ways.) Now the entire discussion has been absorbed by the going back and forth on insurance coverage, and who gets to have it and who doesn’t. Meanwhile, the lack of discussion about cost controlling means that even if we get some sort of improvement on the coverage front, costs are still going to be cannibalizing our economy. Depressing stuff, indeed.
Funnily enough, a bigger, more beefed up version of what Michelle Obama is proposing could be the sort of thing that at least helps control costs in the long run. The growing rates of childhood obesity are scary enough if you care about the health of your fellow Americans, but it’s also alarming to think of what all this could cost us in terms of escalating rates of heart disease and diabetes from all that lack of exercise and good nutrition. Habits and health issues laid down in your childhood are hard to recover from, after all. The great irony in all this is that the problem that Michelle Obama is tackling is so big that it needs to be the focus of more than a First Lady pet project, as valuable as those can be.