Michelle Obama officially launched a new initiative aimed at addressing childhood obesity, an issue that may have ramifications for the baking industry.
The American Baking Association (ABA) applauds the First Lady for tackling the complex, emotional and daunting social problem of obesity. Bakers have a keen interest in the direction and objectives of the First Lady's initiative for two reasons. America's bakers have long focused on providing healthy, wholesome grain-based products to American consumers, including children. However, there was concern among bakers that the initiatives would be too prescriptive, based on common misconceptions instead of science.
The initial details look promising, particularly with the emphasis on public education. The federal government has spent tremendous energy and resources to ensure that national nutrition guidelines are based on the best and most current scientific and medical evidence. The government, however, shortchanged the equally important public education efforts. The First Lady is correct to focus on schoolchildren. If we can successfully educate schoolchildren on the benefits of wearing seat belts and the dangers of smoking, then educating them on basic nutritional information should not be overly difficult.
It is critical to give priority to public education leading to an improved understanding of sensible dietary approaches for children. This includes educating parents and children alike on how to achieve a balanced, calorie-appropriate diet consistent with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) dietary guidelines. The education initiative needs to be science-based, and program benchmarks must be realistic and attainable. American families need consistent, practical advice on how they can make simple changes in their daily routines that will lead to a healthier lifestyle. This is particularly true for children. Helping them incorporate healthy habits into their lives at a young age will ensure they grow into healthy adults.
The White House Obesity Initiative also highlights the need to help children gain access to healthier foods, both at home and at school, including more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Grain foods occupy an important position at the base of USDA's Food Guide MyPyramid, with the dietary guidelines recommending that children, as well as adults, make half their daily grain servings whole grains. Bakers already produce a number of flavorful, nutritious whole grain products targeted to children, and they continue to innovate.
Enriched grains also play a vital role in helping children lead more active and healthy lives. Enriched grains do not get the credit they deserve for providing essential B vitamins (niacin, thiamine and riboflavin) and collectively maintaining a healthy nervous system and increasing energy production — both important factors for optimal child nutrition.
In its commitment to a healthier America, the ABA initiated the first-ever Whole Grain Purchase Program, included in the 2008 Farm Bill. As a result of the ABA and its wheat chain partners' efforts, Congress authorized a one-year Grain Purchase Program (GPP), encouraging awareness and interest in the number and variety of whole grain products available to schoolchildren. The USDA used the GPP funds to purchase and make available to schools whole wheat pancakes for breakfast and whole wheat tortillas for lunch during the second half of the 2009 school year (February through September). It proved to be popular, with 41 states and Puerto Rico participating.
Another critical element of the First Lady's initiative is the emphasis on physical activity. As Americans, we are fortunate to have access to many time- and labor-saving tools and devices. However, these very same tools and devices are depriving us of the everyday physical activities that our parents and grandparents engaged in that contribute to overall physical health. While the First Lady is not for a moment suggesting we rip out escalators or throw away our home computers, she is rightly suggesting that moderate, daily exercise of 20 to 30 minutes would be very beneficial and as simple as taking the steps at the mall rather than the escalator.
Mrs. Obama deserves great credit for using the power of her position to bring new attention and renewed focus on obesity and its impact on our nation's children. The initial efforts appear to be based on both science and common sense. This type of approach, along with a strong collaboration between government agencies and the food industry, will help set our children solidly on the path to a healthier future.