The White House
Office of the First Lady
Remarks by the First Lady at Event on Surgeon General's Report
YMCA of Alexandria, Alexandria, Virginia
1:36 P.M. EST
MRS. OBAMA: As you know, from last night, I get embarrassed when people stand up and clap for me. (Laughter.) I don't really know what to do.
(Laughter.) Do I wave, do I -- it's like, please, just sit down, everyone. (Laughter.)
Good afternoon. I'm thrilled to be here on the floor. (Laughter.) It's a great floor. It's kind of a warm floor, but it's a good floor.
Let me begin by thanking the new First Lady in the room, Maureen McDonnell. We are going to have a great time working together. She is already very engaged and supportive of these initiatives. And since she's so close I am counting on her to work alongside on some of these issues. We're going to see you in a month at the governors gala, whatever they call it, so be ready to dance. (Laughter.) And welcome aboard.
MRS. McDONNELL: (Inaudible) -- practice.
MRS. OBAMA: A little practice, absolutely.
Congressman Moran, again I want to thank you for all your work in this area. I look forward to working with you. Our staffs are already talking about some things that you've been working on for a very long time, so we're grateful for your leadership and concern and focus.
Mayor Euille, again you have been a host to me in your great city, and you've done wonderful work in this area. I had a terrific time addressing the National Conference of Mayors, and I got a very good response from your colleagues. I know that the mayors in this country stand ready to work on this issue. They are seeing the effects of what everyone on this floor has talked about, in terms of childhood obesity, and they're ready to make some changes.
Also, Dr. Palfrey, it is an honor for us to have you with us. As I've shared before, it was through our relationship with our pediatrician that we even began as a family to start thinking about these issues.
And it's our pediatricians and our medical community that are going to work side by side with families throughout the country. So we're grateful for your support. I know that this is not a new issue for you, and I hope that our attention to it makes your job a little bit easier.
I also want to thank all the folks at the Y for all you're doing -- Neil Nicoll, for your work as the national leader. But I know you know as a national leader the real work happens on the ground at these fine facilities all throughout the country. The Y has been a leader in ensuring that families and communities all over this country have access to places to play. Your mobile physical unit, your PhD unit, that came to the South Lawn helped me debut my hula-hooping skills. (Laughter.)
But I think the Ys are showing that they are thinking towards the next stage, you know. The room that we were in is the next generation of what Ys can be. The mobile unit is something that I didn't grow up with, but you're keeping up with the changes in cultures and communities in a way that is going to make a huge impact to the work that we have to do in our nation.
And finally I want to thank my buddy in crime, Secretary Sebelius, for her tremendous leadership and her tremendous friendship. We're glad that you moved out of assisted living. (Laughter.) I know it's hard -- I know, I know, I'll work on him. (Laughter.) But you can come over for dinner or something. (Laughter.) From your work with the CDC to the FDA, the Department of Health and Human Services is clearly at the forefront of addressing some of our greatest health issues, and it's going to take their continued commitment. These grants that are coming out, we've been working with your department in getting them done. Your staff has been tremendous in moving very quickly on getting that money out, and I'm anxious to see what all that hard work leads to. So we are grateful not just to you but all of the thousands of people in your agency who make us all look very good.
And finally I want to commend our new Surgeon General Dr. Benjamin who I finally got to meet. (Laughter.) Three months on the job and we're already making you crazy, right? (Laughter.) But you're doing a terrific job just jumping right in. The report is not only timely but it's right on point. And your perspective, your new way of looking at this issue, is refreshing, and again it's right on point. It's presenting both the dangers of inaction, and a vision for health for this country. It's an incredible step in a long journey that we'll have to take. So we want to thank you for your important work.
So as we've seen, the surge in obesity in this country is nothing short of a public health crisis, and it's threatening our children, it's threatening our families, and more importantly it's threatening the future of this nation. Higher rates of obesity are directly linked, as you've heard, to higher rates of chronic illnesses like heart disease and cancer and diabetes. Even though type 2 diabetes is rare among young people, more than three quarters of those who have it are obese.
In fact, the health consequences are so severe that as the Secretary said, medical experts have warned that our children are on track to be less healthy than we are. And there's never been a generation of young people who are on track to be healthier than their parents -- or less healthy than their parents.
And truly, if we're really honest with ourselves, it's not hard to understand how this happens. I've tried to track this through my own life.
In some cases, it's access. Parents have told me -- I've seen it myself
-- that they would love nothing more than to feed their kids more healthy foods, but if you don't live anywhere near a place that sells fresh produce, it's very hard to accomplish that goal.
In other cases, the issue is just convenience. At the end of a long day
-- and more and more families are experiencing these long days with two parents working and busy schedules -- you just get home and you're tired and you pick up the phone and you order a pizza, or you go to that drive-thru. It's just easier. Our modern-day life makes it very difficult for us to sit down and prepare that meal.
And a lot of times it's affordability. In these tough economic times, buying healthy foods unfortunately feels like a luxury for too many families. They just can't afford it. We've seen stories, we've heard stories, of people who know that buying that large gallon of juice is cheaper than buying a gallon of milk. They can't afford to make different choices.
And then at schools and in our communities, oftentimes it's budget cuts that make it more difficult. Recess and PE are gone for many kids in communities all across this country. Parks and playgrounds and after-school sports are few and far between in too many neighborhoods.
And for most people, the cause is really a combination of all of these things. It's no one particular thing. It's everything cobbled together.
And let's face it: There are really just too many pressures on parents today.
And I understand those pressures. I talk about this all the time. It's easy to live healthy when you live in the White House and you have staff and people who are cooking for you and making sure that it's balanced and colorful, because I had a hard time doing it before I lived in the White House, and that wasn't so long ago. Barack and I were like any working couple. I was a working mom with a husband that was busy, so many times I was the one balancing that load and wrestling with many of those challenges. And there were plenty of times, I tell you, that you'd come home tired, you don't want to hear the kids fuss, and popping something in the microwave or picking up a burger was just heaven. It was a Godsend.
But we were fortunate enough to have a pediatrician, as I've mentioned, that kind of waved the red flag for me, as a mother, and basically cautioned me that I had to take a look at my own children's BMI. Now, we went to our pediatrician all the time. I thought my kids were perfect -- they are and always will be -- (laughter) -- but he warned that he was concerned that something was getting off balance, because fortunately he was a pediatrician that worked predominantly in an African American urban community, and he knew these trends existed, and he was watching very closely in his client population, his patient population.
So again, in my eyes, my children were perfect. I didn't see the changes. And that's also part of the problem, or part of the challenge.
It's often hard to see changes in your own kids when you're living with them day in and day out. As parents, we all know and will readily acknowledge broadly that kids in general -- we will say we know they don't eat right -- right? -- and we know they don't get as much exercise as they should, generally. But we often simply don't realize that those kids are our kids, and our kids could be in danger of becoming obese.
We always think that only happens to someone else's kid -- and I was in that position. We all want desperately to make the best choices for our kids, but in this climate it's hard to know what's the right thing to do anymore.
So even though I wasn't exactly sure at that time what I was supposed to do with this information about my children's BMI, I knew that I had to do something; that I had to lead our family to a different way.
But the beauty was that for me over the course of a few months we started making really minor changes. And I share this story because the changes were so minor.
We did things like, you know, limit TV time. My kids were already fairly active, but, you know, we cut TV time out during the week, and that helped increase activity, because they were just running up and down the stairs annoying me more. (Laughter.)
We paid more attention to portion size. Didn't make a big deal out of it, but just sort of said, listen to when you're hungry, and when you're full, stop.
We reduced our intake of sugary drinks and instead encouraged our kids to drink more water. I just put water bottles in the lunch during the week, or we had low-fat milk. Again, didn't make a big deal out of it
-- just made the change.
We put more fruits and vegetables in our diets, again, trying to make for a colorful palate, but you'd slip some grapes in at breakfast time, and throw in an apple at lunch, and pester them about whether they actually ate the apple. (Laughter.) And then you try to balance it out with something at dinner time.
I mean, it was really very minor stuff. But these small changes resulted in some really significant improvements. And I didn't know it would. It was so significant that the next time we visited our pediatrician, he was amazed. He looked over the girls' charts and he said, "What on Earth are you doing?" And I said, "Really, not much, not much." And that's the good news that we want to share with families, particularly for kids: Small changes can lead to big results. They're not destined to this fate, and they're not really in control what goes into their mouths, usually.
So we know what has led to the obesity epidemic, you know. We know inside -- I mean, we're still learning -- but we kind of know. And we know what we need to do to solve it. We just have to make the commitment to do it. We really -- each and every one of us needs to make that commitment. We need to provide parents with better nutritional information so that they can make better choices. We need to give our kids healthier options at school, where many kids are getting most of their meals. We need to make sure they're spending less time in front of the TV and playing videogames, and more time exercising and having fun and doing the work of children, which is play.
But we also know that the solution can't come from government alone.
That's something that we just have to remind ourselves. And for many, that's a great relief. Everyone has to be willing to do their part to solve this problem, and everyone has to work together to turn this pattern around.
And that's exactly what we hope to do through an administration-wide initiative on child obesity that I'm going to be launching in the next couple of weeks, along with a number of important partners.
We're going to be bringing the federal government together, those resources in partnerships with business, non-profit and the foundation communities, all of whom are thrilled to be a part of this endeavor.
It's just been refreshing to see so many people recognizing that this is the time to step up and make some changes.
We're going to do a number of things -- again, some of them small things. We want to create what we're calling more healthy schools. And these are schools that are offering more nutritious meal options during the day. They're providing nutritional information to children as part of the curriculum, and they're ensuring that children are getting the increased exercise that we know that they need.
But we also have to focus on increasing the amount of exercise outside of school, and no place -- like the Y knows that we need to make these changes.
We need to make healthy food options more affordable and accessible.
And that's going to be probably one of the toughest things that we need to do. And we need to do this in all communities: urban, rural, everywhere. People have to have the information, they have to have access in order to make healthy choices. There is nothing more frustrating that will frustrate a parent more than to say that you've got to buy more fruits and vegetables -- but to still see the cost out of kilter and see those goals out of reach.
So these are just some of the things that we hope to do through this initiative. But what we know is that we have to be ambitious; that the approach has to be ambitious. It can't just be lockstep. It's got to be something meaningful and powerful.
And the other thing that I will say -- and say again and again and again
-- this won't be easy. So let's begin with that. (Laughter.) This will not be easy and it won't happen overnight. And it won't happen simply because the First Lady has made it her priority. That in and of itself is not going to be enough. It's going to take all of us. Thank God it's not going to be solely up to me. (Laughter.) But it's going to take all of us -- parents, schools, communities -- working together for a very long time, over a sustained period of time. Over generations of children will need to keep doing this.
But I have every confidence, based on the level of energy that I've seen, based on the willingness of people to deal with this issue across party lines, the willingness of the business community to be a part of the solution. Every sign that we've seen over the course of moving to this rollout has been nothing but positive.
And of course parents are ready and willing. We all want to make the best choices for our children. We just need to know how. And if we continue to do that, if we work with our physicians, if we work with our Surgeon General, if we've got the government, the federal government, working together, businesses ready to make the sacrifices, then we can tackle this problem. And we can do something really important for our kids. We can hand them the future that we know they're going to need to be successful.
So I am excited. And I look forward to working with all of you over the next years to make this not just a dream but to make this movement a reality.
So thank you all for the work that you've done so far. And we have a lot more work to do. So thank you so much. (Applause.)
1:54 P.M. EST