Childhood Obesity and Politics

As far back as three years ago, political writers were speculating on whether childhood obesity would be a big issue in the 2016 presidential election, but so far it doesn’t seem to be on any of the potential candidates’ radar.

First Lady Michelle Obama started a White House kitchen garden in 2009 when, according to legend, she noticed that her own daughters’ lifestyle included very little fresh produce. As time went on and the garden became a public relations showpiece, it grew more elaborate with the addition of beehives and herbs.

In the spring of 2012 Mrs. Obama’s book American Grown was published, with a long and explicit subtitle: “The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America.” And in 2011, the mega-star vocalist and dancer Beyonce publicized the “Let’s Move!” campaign with a dynamic music video featuring herself and a large number of school kids.

On the more medically-oriented side, research was showing that breastfed babies gain some protection against obesity. One problem facing mothers who return to work is that in order to continue natural feeding, they have to do something very unnatural.

Imagine having to bring in equipment and express milk into a container to take home later, and imagine having to do this in a restroom with co-workers coming and going. The First Lady concerned herself with such nitty-gritty details, and “Let’s Move” worked to make the lives of breastfeeding mothers easier, especially with legislation affecting the workplace.

Of course, even the best-intentioned programs will attract criticism from someone. People of a certain political bent were incensed when the IRS graciously decided to allow a medical expense tax deduction for breast pumps and related paraphernalia.

It was also suspected that the “Let’s Move!” program was just an excuse to put more useless paper-pushers on the government’s payroll and also to undermine parental authority in general. Also, some said that Michelle Obama concentrated on kids whose problem is having too much to eat, and ignored the fact that plenty of American kids don’t have enough to eat.

Two year into “Let’s Move,” haters were saying that teenage obesity had actually increased. Of course, if it was one of their own programs, they surely would have pointed out that a boat the size of the Titanic can’t turn on a dime. Change takes time, especially when it concerns both entrenched bureaucratic custom and human nature itself.

Strange bedfellows

For a politician who hopes to accomplish anything, a good relationship with corporate leadership is very important. Something had to be done, to gently introduce the food and beverage industries to the concept of accountability. But when the “Partnership for a Healthier America” was established, it added fuel to the fires of criticism.

One goal of this friendship was to open the way for more people to have places to buy healthful fresh food. Some people understood and others derided the concept of the “food desert,” an area in which fresh food is just not obtainable, especially when many local inhabitants are too poor to even have cars.

Walmart promised to help out by building more stores in food deserts — which it did, more than 200 of them. Unfortunately, it seems that the availability of affordable fresh groceries is not enough to change people’s habits, and they mainly enjoy having easier access to processed food and junk food.

And then, Walmart turned around and closed 154 stores that were not making quite the stellar profits that the chain has come to expect as its due. The Associated Press reported:

The U.S. Department of Agriculture considers a neighborhood a food desert if at least a fifth of residents live in poverty and a third live more than 1 mile from a supermarket in urban areas, or more than 10 miles in rural areas, where residents are more likely to have cars. Nearly 9,000 neighborhoods are considered food deserts by that definition, according to the USDA’s most recent review.

It is a serious handicap to be miles away from a grocery store and especially, a pharmacy. A very sad aspect of this Walmart desertion is that in many places, the coming of the giant superstore killed local businesses, which now have neither the means nor the inclination to open up again. Maybe people will be encouraged to start their own gardens and form vegetable swap clubs and open little roadside stands, like in bygone days.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Wal-Mart shutdowns create new food deserts, including 1 in Arkansas,”, 01/27/16
Photo credit: anne arnould via Visual hunt/CC BY-SA

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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