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Turns Out Michelle Obama’s Obesity Campaign Was a Flabby Flop

One thing you won't hear about the feted former first lady at the DNC tonight: kids actually gained weight under her program.
michelle obama

Former First Lady Michelle Obama is the keynote speaker this evening for the first night of the Democratic National Convention. The New York Times has hailed her as one of the “creative geniuses who defined culture in 2016” and the Associated Press christened her a “luminary with international influence” in the same year.  But don’t expect the media to tell you that today, Ms. Obama’s biggest initiative as First Lady has proven a disastrous failure. 

In 2010, Ms. Obama launched her “Let’s Move” campaign for “solving the problem of childhood obesity in a generation.”  She proclaimed a goal of reducing the percentage of overweight and obese children by 2.5 percent by 2015.  She was speedily awarded sainthood for her lofty aspirations.

But, despite glowing press coverage for the “Let’s Move” campaign, even more children are super-sizing nowadays. The percentage of overweight youth rose from 14.9 percent in 2009-2010 to 16.6 percent in 2015-2016, while the percentage of obese youth rose from 16.9 percent to 18.5 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control. As the New York Times noted in January, reports that the child obesity problem had stabilized were “an illusion. If anything, things have gotten worse.”

The most visible legacy of “Let’s Move” is a vast increase in the number of children consuming government-subsidized meals. Ms. Obama helped push the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act through Congress in 2010. That bill made some revisions to nutritional standards for school meals that were intensely unpopular with students (such as smaller lunch sizes and blander food). Some reforms were necessary because USDA school feeding programs have been a perpetual dietary disaster. A 2010 University of Michigan study found that low-income kids who did not eat subsidized school meals were much less likely to become fat.

Unfortunately, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act pretended that all the dietary perils vanished when Obama signed the law. Any school with 40 percent of low-income students can now provide federally-subsidized free breakfast and lunch to all students—even though most children’s families would not qualify for aid.  

Breakfast enrollment  surged more than 30 percent after 2010, feeding almost 15 million kids each morning prior to the COVID school shutdowns. Ms. Obama declared in 2010 that, because children’s nutrition is so important, “We can’t just leave it up to the parents.” But schools have a worse record of providing healthy fare than do most parents.  

That’s because schools offer breakfasts with “carb loading” more appropriate for marathon runners than for schoolchildren. Homer Simpson is the patron saint of school breakfast programs. Donuts and other high-sugar pastries have a starring role in morning menus across the nation. USDA bans schools from serving whole milk, but approves providing chocolate skim milk—even though each half pint contains almost half the daily added sugar that the American Heart Association recommends for kids. The Center for Investigative Reporting warned that “sugar levels in school meals are more than double what is recommended for the general public.” 

A 2014 analysis by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health noted that USDA’s “new requirements do not limit the amount of added sugar in school meals” and may “be perpetuating eating habits linked to obesity, diabetes and other diet-related diseases.” 

To massively expand the program, the Obama administration rewarded schools that encourage all children to eat free breakfasts in the classroom (a policy championed by Ms. Obama). But breakfast in the classroom programs “may contribute to excess calorie intake,” according to a 2013 American Journal of Public Health analysis. A 2015 National Bureau of Economic Research report found that providing breakfast in the classroom more than doubled “the likelihood of eating two breakfasts.” That report also found no improvement in daily nutrient intake from expanded school breakfast programs. 

School officials in some areas scorned parents who protested schools feeding their kid a second breakfast and deluging them with sugary fare. What could possibly go wrong from a handout program blessed by the most revered First Lady since Eleanor Roosevelt? Plenty, according to a growing number of scientific reports. According to a 2016 study published in Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “Receiving school breakfasts more than doubled the odds of becoming obese for children from families below the federal poverty line compared with children of similar socioeconomic backgrounds who did not regularly receive school breakfasts.” 

The adverse impacts of school meals are compounded by another federal program that stretches American waistlines. President Obama strove to boost food stamp enrollment as rapidly as possible, and total recipients rose from 28 million in 2008 to 44 million in 2016. Walter Willett, chair of Harvard University’s Department of Nutrition, observed in 2015, “We’ve analyzed what [food stamp] participants are eating and it’s horrible food. It’s a diet designed to produce obesity and diabetes.” A 2017 study published in BMC Public Health found that food stamp recipients were twice as likely to be obese as eligible non-recipients. Almost half of the women collecting food stamps are obese, according to a 2011 analysis

Thanks to Obama’s expansion of food stamps and other programs, federal food programs were feeding more than 100 million Americans in 2013. The Trump administration has sought to curtail this gravy train but has faced stiff resistance in Congress.

Ms. Obama’s campaign for more free kiddie meals might have made sense if most low-income children were gaunt, but overeating has long been a much greater public health peril. A 2012 Journal of the American Medical Association editorial noted that  “seven times as many [low-income] children are obese as are underweight.” Children in lower-income families were almost twice as likely to be overweight or obese as children from higher-income families.

Michelle Obama’s “government knows best” and “government feeds best” recipes have been disasters for American children.  Nothing that Ms. Obama, who now receives up to $200,000 for each speech she gives, can say or do can compete with the trays of free donuts that schools offer to children. But regardless of the dire results of her dietary crusades, most of the media will still portray her as a savior of children this week.

James Bovard is the author of Lost RightsAttention Deficit Democracy, and Public Policy Hooligan. He is also a USA Today columnist. Follow him on Twitter @JimBovard.