Remarks by The First Lady at the National PTA Conference

Arlington, VA–(ENEWSPF)–March 10, 2010 – 12:20 P.M. EST

MRS. OBAMA:  Thank you.  (Applause.)  Thank you all so much.  (Applause.)  Thank you.  (Applause.)  Please, please, be seated.

Thanks so much.  It is a pleasure to be here with all of you today.  And thank you for the wonderful work that you do every day in schools and communities all across this country.

And I also want to say thanks to Chuck.  Chuck was here — where did he go — for his outstanding leadership for the National PTA.  I understand for the first time in its 113-year history, an organization that began as the National Congress of Mothers is now led by a father.  (Applause.)  So I commend Chuck for his work to get more fathers involved, right?  (Applause.)  That’s right.

I also understand Chuck got his start with his local PTA almost 20 years ago for one simple reason -– and that was, his first son, Matthew, was entering the first grade.  And that’s really the same reason why I know that most of you got started with your own local PTA — my mom was a PTA mom — because you had a child — yes, she was — (applause) — because I know each of you got involved because you had a child in a school that you cared about.

And that’s one of the great things about this organization –- that anyone can get involved, anyone can get engaged.  All that’s required is that you care about our kids; and that you care about their well being, and their potential to grow up into happy, and healthy, and successful adults; and also that you care about the future of our community and our country.  And that’s really why we’re all here today, why I’m here, because we care deeply about our kids.

And I know this organization shares my conviction that it’s finally time to take on one of the most serious threats to our children’s future and to ours: and that’s the epidemic of childhood obesity in America today.

Now, as Chuck said, when you start talking about this issue, we often begin with the statistics -– how over the past three decades, childhood obesity rates in America have tripled.  Tripled.  Or how today, nearly one in three American children is overweight or obese.  And these statistics are breathtaking.

But as far-reaching as this epidemic is, the truth is it’s also deeply personal –- for our kids and for us.  So while I travel this country speaking about this issue as a First Lady, I really come to it first and foremost as a mother.

As parents, we know that this isn’t just about how our kids look.  It has nothing to do with it.  It’s about how they feel -– and it’s about how they feel about themselves.  It’s about the impact this issue has on their health, and the impact that it will have on their futures.

And I know these issues aren’t new to any of you.  I know that in PTA meetings around the country, you’re probably hearing from teachers who see the teasing and the bullying kids endure.  You’re probably hearing from counselors who see the depression and the low self-esteem.

You may even be hearing from coaches who see kids struggling to keep up –- or pediatricians who see kids coming into their offices with conditions like high cholesterol and blood pressure — high blood pressure, and Type II diabetes -– and these are conditions that they used to only see in adults.

And if you’re like me, you might be thinking to yourselves:  How on Earth did we get here?  How did this happen?  Because it wasn’t always like this.

I imagine like many of you in this room we share similar memories of our childhoods, which were very active.  It included walking to and from school every day, running around at recess and gym every day, and playing in the neighborhood for hours after you got home from school until somebody called you in for dinner.

And then when you got inside, usually sitting around the table as a family, you ate what your parents fixed -– no questions asked.  (Laughter and applause.)  And if you didn’t, what, you went to bed hungry, right?  (Laughter.)  Back then, vegetables were a given.  You had them at every meal.  And dessert was something that happened on Sunday, if you were lucky.

I know this may sound like nostalgia — because the reality is, times have changed.  You know, the world’s gotten faster, the economy’s gotten tougher, and parents and kids keep taking on more and more.  And as a result, healthy habits all too easily give way to habits of convenience and necessity.

For many kids, those walks to school have been replaced by car or bus rides.  And then in schools there are cuts to recess and gym, which mean less play time. Lunchtime may mean a meal heavy with calories and fat, and snack time might be no better.  And afternoons running outside after school have been replaced by afternoons sitting inside with the TV, video games, and the Internet -– habits that expose our kids to 40,000 advertisements each year, many for unhealthy foods and drinks.

And meanwhile, we as parents, we’re facing our own challenges.  You know, parents might want to buy healthy food and they might want to buy that head of broccoli, but let’s be honest, in so many cases those chips are cheaper.  You know, they may want to go buy fresh produce, but sometimes there’s no supermarket in their community.  So they’re stuck with a choice between fast food and something off the shelf of the local convenience store.

Every parent I meet wants to do the right thing for their kids.  But it’s easy to feel like the deck is stacked against us.  And too often, we slip into bad habits.  But we know we’re not bad parents.  But we end up feeling guilty anyway.  And believe me, I know what that feels like, because I’ve been there.

And I know there’s some people in the room thinking, oh, sure, Michelle Obama — she can’t relate, she lives in the White House.  (Laughter.)  And I’ll be the first to say that I know I am blessed today with more help and support than I ever could have dreamed of.  So don’t hate.  (Laughter and applause.)

But it really wasn’t that long ago that I was a working mom, just like many people in this room, struggling to balance meetings and deadlines and soccer and ballet and a husband whose work kept him away a lot.  And there were nights when everybody in my house was tired and hungry, and we just went to the nearest drive-thru.  Or I popped something into the microwave.  And like any parent, there were times when I made excuses and I told myself that my kids would turn out fine no matter what I did — because I loved them.  They’re cute.  (Laughter.)

Until one day, my pediatrician pulled me aside and he said, “You know, you might want to think about doing things a little differently.”  And that was my wakeup call.  That was when I was reminded that I am the parent and I’m the one in charge.

And let’s be honest:  Our kids didn’t do this to themselves.  They don’t decide what they’re served at meals.  They don’t go shopping.  They don’t decide whether there’s time for recess and gym.  We make those decisions.  We set those priorities.  We’re the ones in charge.

But that’s the good news — because if we helped create this problem, then we can solve this problem.  We can do that.  But instead of just talking about it, instead of worrying and wringing our hands about it, we have to do something about it.  We have to move.  Let’s move.

And that’s precisely what people across this country are already doing.

For example, in Mississippi, which is the state that leads the nation in overweight kids and adults, they’re not waiting around to tackle this issue.  They’re working to get healthier food into their school cafeterias, and more physical education for kids all across the state.

As I saw this firsthand when I visited the state last week:  They’re bringing together state and local leaders; principals and teachers; parents, students; doctors, nutritionists.  And they’re proving that even without tons of money and resources, which they don’t have, there are plenty of creative ways to take back control and give our kids the kind of lives they deserve.

And that’s the spirit behind Let’s Move –- the nationwide campaign that we launched to help kids lead active, healthy lives right from the beginning, so that we can end childhood obesity within a generation.  And there’s no doubt that this is an ambitious goal.  And there’s no doubt that achieving it is going to take every last one of us doing our part to get our kids healthy and to get them to stay that way.

That’s why I have met with mayors and governors and I’ve asked them to do their parts to build healthier cities and states.  I’ve met with food service directors and workers in the School Nutrition Association and I’ve asked them to do their part to offer healthier meals and snacks for kids in our schools.

I’ve even met with kids and I’ve asked them –- I asked them very nicely -– (laughter) — to do their part to make healthier choices for themselves each day.  Now, they were all excited until I told them it meant trying new vegetables — and then they got a little quiet.  (Laughter.)  But it’s okay.

And next week I’ll be meeting with the food manufacturers and I’m going to ask them to do their part to improve the quality of the food that they provide to us so that we have healthier options to choose from.  (Applause.)

And of course I’ve been meeting with parents –- because we have to do our part.  We all know that we play the most important role in this effort — because truly, healthy habits start at home.  But how do we encourage those habits?  How do we sift through all the information on how to help our kids eat better?  How do we do that?  How do we know that what we do at home won’t be erased when our kids go to school?  How can we get our kids to think about exercise not as work, but as play?

It’s going to take nothing short of a comprehensive and coordinated effort in our homes, in our schools, in our communities to get this done.  And that’s what the four parts of Let’s Move are all about.

The first part of this campaign:  Let’s move to offer parents the tools and information they need to make healthy choices for their kids.  So we’re encouraging pediatricians and family doctors to regularly measure our children’s BMI, and then to actually write out a prescription for parents with detailed steps that they can take to keep kids healthy and fit.

And we’re working with the FDA and the food industry to make our food labels more customer-friendly, so that parents don’t have to squint at words they can’t even pronounce to figure out which foods are healthy and which ones just claim to be.

And already, the nation’s largest beverage companies have announced that they’re taking steps to provide clearly visible information about calories on the front of their products –- as well as on vending machines and soda machines.

We’ve also started a one-stop shopping Web site called -– so that with a click of a mouse, parents can find helpful tips and strategies, including recipes and exercise plans.

Now, we can also do more to make healthy living fun and exciting for kids, believe it or not.  One way to do that might be with video games.  Now, we know our kids spend way too much time with these games.  And we know we’re going to have to fix that.  But we also know that that’s not going to happen overnight.  So we might as well try to use some of that time to our advantage.

That’s why today I’m announcing a wonderful contest called the Apps for Healthy Kids challenge.  It’s going to be run through the USDA.  And we’re challenging software and game designers — both professionals and amateurs — to come up with games that incorporate nutritional information and make healthy living fun.

And maybe you’ve seen those dance video games or those exercise games that families are playing together at home, or the ones that kids play using their mobile phones and home computers.  Those are the kinds of games that we’re talking about.

We’re also challenging designers to come up with apps and tools for us, the parents.  So if, for example, you’re at the grocery store and you’re trying to figure out whether one food is healthier than the other, then you can pull up that answer on your iPhone.

To select the winners of this contest, we’re putting together an all-star panel of judges that will include leaders in the fields of gaming and technology and nutrition –- and even a co-founder of Apple.  And we’re offering tens of thousands of dollars in cash prizes for the winners.

But here’s the thing:  No matter how much parents want to instill healthy habits in their kids, all the tools and information in the world won’t help if they don’t have access to healthy food in their neighborhoods.

And right now, 23.5 million Americans, including 6.5 million kids, live in what we call “food deserts” — these are areas without a supermarket.  And as a result these families wind up buying their groceries at the local gas station or convenience store, places that offer few, if any, healthy options.

So let’s move to ensure that all families have access to healthy, affordable foods in their community.  (Applause.)  And that’s the second part of the initiative.  And we’ve set an ambitious goal here:  to eliminate food deserts in America within seven years.

To do that, we’re creating a Healthy Food Financing Initiative that’s going to invest $400 million a year — and leverage hundreds of millions more from the private sector — to bring grocery stores to underserved areas and help places like convenience stores carry healthier options.

Now, we can help families make healthier choices, and we can help communities provide healthier food, but let’s not forget that our kids spend most of the day in school.

So the third part of the initiative is to make our schools healthier places for our kids to learn and grow.  We’re going to start — (applause) — we’re going to start with a priority that I know is important to this organization, and that’s updating and strengthening the Child Nutrition Act.  (Applause.)

We’ve proposed a historic investment of an additional $10 billion over 10 years to fund that legislation, allowing us to dramatically improve the quality of food we offer in schools — including in school vending machines.

And here’s the thing, this is how important this is, just a couple of weeks ago, 66 retired generals, admirals, and other senior military leaders sent a letter to Congress supporting these efforts because they said this was a matter of national security.

Now, when you think about it, that’s not surprising, because the National School Lunch Program was started after World War II because the most common disqualifier for military service back then was malnourishment.  And today, if you can believe it, one of the most common disqualifiers is obesity.

So, we’re also going to work to dramatically increase the number of schools that meet the Healthier US School Challenge.  And these are schools that provide healthy meals, physical education, nutrition education, and ensure that kids receive the free and reduced-price meals that they’re eligible for.  These healthier schools are going to be the model of what we want for every single school in America.

To help us meet this goal, several major school food suppliers have, for the first time, come together and made a pledge to help us by decreasing sugar, fat, and salt and increasing whole grains and doubling the amount of fresh produce.  (Applause.)  Big.

And our food service workers, our principals, our superintendents, school board members all across America are also coming together to support this effort.  It’s been very encouraging.

But we know that eating right is only half the battle.  Experts recommend that our kids get at least 60 minutes of active play a day — and we know that many of them don’t even come close.

So let’s move — and I mean that literally.  Let’s find new ways for our kids to be physically active, both in and out of school.

That’s the final part of this initiative.  We’re expanding and modernizing the President’s Physical Fitness Challenge, and we’ve recruited professional athletes from dozens of different sports leagues like the NFL, Major League Baseball.  They’re going to work with us to encourage kids to get and stay active.

And last Friday, we worked with soccer — players from Major League Soccer and Women’s Professional Soccer.  They joined us in a fun clinic with kids in the area to teach them about staying active.  And I played a little soccer myself.  (Laughter.)  I was embarrassed by the little people — (laughter) — but it was fun.

But the reason I did that is because we have to admit that as parents we all know that we have to spend more time being active with our kids.  And the truth is you don’t have to be some specialist, you don’t have to have special skills or equipment to do this.  Sometimes it’s as simple as going for a walk with your kids, taking the stairs with them instead of the elevator, or going up and down them a few times.  Even something as simple as turning on the radio and dancing with them for a while, working up a sweat.

But it’s also about making sure our communities have safe places for kids to play.  And there’s this terrific non-profit organization — I’m sure you all know KaBOOM — that’s working to do this.  Right now they’re working to map every single playground in the country, so that parents can find the closest one in their neighborhood.  And I encourage you all to check it out and add the playgrounds in your own community to their list.

And just as parents can do more at home in their communities, teachers can also do more at school.

When I was in Mississippi last night — last week — it felt like last night — (laughter) — I visited a school where teachers were required — now, listen to this — required to actually eat lunch with their students.  Oh, scary proposition, right?  (Applause.)  But as a result, what they’ve seen was fresh fruit and vegetable consumption going up.

In other schools, teachers are educating kids about proper nutrition, and they’re working to set good examples themselves with their own eating and exercise habits.

But we have to remember, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to solving this problem.  And what we have to remember is that something that works in one school or family may not work in another.  The key is to find an approach and keep working until we find and you find what works in your families and communities.

But to help do that, in the coming weeks, we’re going to be creating an online “toolkit” with tips and strategies for parents and teachers and students to use to help them find their approach, and they’re going to be able to go to to check those out.

These are just some of the things that we’re doing to achieve our goal.  And we know it won’t be easy.  And we know it is not going to happen overnight — because what we do know as parents is that in the end, we cannot control every single thing our kids eat or every single moment of their time, nor should we.

But what we can do, what is fully within our control, is to give them the very best start in their journeys; to teach them what we’ve learned, even if we don’t do it ourselves in our own lives; to live in a way that gives them some kind of model to follow.

So let’s act.  Let’s move.  Let’s do everything we can for the kids that we were inspired to join causes like the PTA in the first place.  Let’s do everything we can to ensure that our kids have the energy and the endurance to succeed in school, and then to pursue the careers of their dreams, and hopefully to build families and lives of their own.  Let’s do everything we can to give our kids the future they deserve in this country that we all love.  I know we can do this.  I know we’re all ready.  Are we ready?


MRS. OBAMA:  Yes we are!  (Applause.)  So I look forward to working with you all in these efforts in the months to come.  Thank you so much.

12:44 P.M. EST