by Nancy Benac
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP)–She did some wild arm swings, sharp robotic turns and pulsing fist pumps.
Michelle Obama busted out a few new moves Feb. 9 to mark the second anniversary of her campaign against childhood obesity with a few new friends—14,000 or so, it turns out.
The first lady rocked out with thousands of sixth- to ninth-graders at a Des Moines arena on the first stop of a three-day trip to highlight her “Let’s Move” campaign. It was a giant pep rally for eating right and exercising, complete with confetti, balloons and a towering birthday cake made of fruit.
The first lady and crowd revved up by doing the Interlude, a dance that started in a dorm room at the University of Northern Iowa and went viral from there.
Mrs. Obama chose Iowa for her first stop because the state is working to become the nation’s healthiest state by 2016, as measured by the Gallup organization. It ranked 19th in 2010, the most recent rankings.
She sold healthy eating to the kids as something fun, but also dangled the bait that it could help them “pass your tests and get good grades in school.”
There were plenty of sports celebrities on hand to help pump up the crowd, including gymnast Shawn Johnson, figure skater Michelle Kwan, NASCAR champion Carl Edwards, Iowa State basketball coach Fred Hoiberg and former WNBA star Tamika Catchings.
The first lady took on the issue of childhood obesity because almost a third of U.S. children are at least overweight, and about 17 percent are obese.
In the two years since Mrs. Obama launched her campaign, she has brought substantial new visibility to the childhood obesity issue and has prodded schools, families, restaurants, grocery stores, doctors, local communities and others to do more to tackle the problem.
Robert Blendon, a Harvard professor who tracks public opinion on health care, said Mrs. Obama has helped bring about a shift in attitude, with childhood obesity increasingly being viewed as a societal problem rather than a personal matter. She’s given people tangible ideas on how to eat better and exercise more rather than talking in broad concepts that don’t hit home with parents, he said.
“It’s getting into people’s conversations in ways that it would not have been if someone had not taken it on,” Blendon said.
The first lady herself said recently she’s “pretty much willing to make a complete fool out of myself” to get kids moving and eating better.
To that end, she’s done push-ups with everyone from Ellen DeGeneres to South Africa’s Desmond Tutu, danced the “Dougie” with school kids, done jumping jacks and swiveled a hula hoop on the South Lawn, fed veggie pizza to Jay Leno and competed in an East Room potato sack race with Jimmy Fallon.
Thursday, she added the Interlude to her repertoire.
Beyond the policy and health implications, the effort has contributed to an engaging image of the first lady—and, by association, has been an asset for the president’s re-election effort.
The first lady’s campaign hasn’t been just all fluffy words, hip dances and funny jokes.
Marion Nestle, a food and nutrition professor at New York University, gives the first lady high marks for going up against powerful forces in the food and beverage industry, and getting some pushback along the way. The first lady also has attracted some “nanny state” grumbling from conservatives who think she’s intruding on what should be personal matters.
“Let’s give her credit,” Nestle said. “She has no real power. She has no legal authority. She’s a wife, and yet she has managed to take this issue and bring it to national prominence.”
Nestle said it will take decades to tell whether the campaign produces reductions in childhood obesity, likening it to the gradual turnaround in attitudes about smoking.