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How Michelle Obama made wellness a national conversation


Partnership for a Healthier America
Photo: Partnership for a Healthier America
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In early October, Michelle Obama began cementing her legacy—literally.

Although her time as First Lady of the United States is nearly up, Obama announced a $2.5 million donation that would keep the organic White House Kitchen Garden up and running and brought in a team to add stone pathways, an archway cemented into the lawn, and a paving stone that reads “White House Kitchen Garden, established in 2009 by First Lady Michelle Obama with the hope of growing a healthier nation for our children.” Commentators quickly seized on the fact that the renovation would make it much harder for the next administration to bulldoze the hot pepper plants—and she didn’t stop there.

Michelle Obama wellness influence
Photo: [email protected]

Students from an East Harlem school, where Edible Schoolyard NYC just completed a rooftop garden and greenhouse, appeared on Today to accept plants from the White House Garden, ensuring that her beltway spinach and tomatoes will grow on, far from Pennsylvania Avenue.

Both scenes were powerful demonstrations of our fitness-minded FLOTUS’ focus on showing how eating whole, organic foods can be a means toward making Americans healthier—especially kids. And while there is a lot of disappointment within the food movement around President Obama’s unwillingness to take on corporate agriculture and make meaningful policy changes related to the overall food system, there’s no doubt that Michelle Obama succeeded in focusing the spotlight on the importance of wellness.

“The impact of doing the hula hoop on the White House lawn and feeding kale chips to comedians on late-night TV is incredible.”

“Not only has she made health a topic people are finally talking about, but she’s made it fun, super approachable, and broadened the lens of what it means to be active,” says Tyler Haney, founder and CEO of cool-girl fitness fashion brand Outdoor Voices, who worked with Obama on Doing Things Day this past May. “She’s funny, human, and real, and leads by example as a mom and a wife from within the White House.”

Another way to put it? “The impact of doing the hula hoop on the White House lawn and feeding kale chips to comedians on late-night TV is incredible,” says Nancy Easton, executive director and co-founder of Wellness in the Schools, a nonprofit organization that brings healthy food, recess activities, and fitness and nutrition education to schools.

How has she had a major impact? Keep reading for the rundown of how our SoulCycler-in-chief has been most influential—as well as what the future holds.

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Let's Move
Photo: Let’s Move

Saying Let’s Move! toward ending childhood obesity

It all started with the garden, which led to to the establishment of the Let’s Move initiative in 2010 to increase kids’ access to healthier food and get them exercising more—especially in schools. Obama then played a key role in the administration’s decision to create the first national task force on childhood obesity and appoint Sam Kass as the first-ever senior policy advisor for nutrition.

Perhaps the most influential achievement was the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, “which is improving the nutrition of school lunch with more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, less meat, and less sodium,” Easton says. “It also restricts the marketing of processed foods in schools.”

In addition to Let’s Move, Obama launched the Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA) which works with private-sector partners to reduce childhood obesity by convincing companies to commit to offering healthier options. And that plan has worked incredibly well, says Cecily Upton, the co-founder of FoodCorps, a nonprofit that connects children to healthy food in schools. “Her strategic alliance of parents, educators, retailers, celebrities, government, and community groups means that the message of achieving health through eating right and exercising is being broadcast and reinforced nationwide,” she adds.

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Outdoor Voices
Photo: Outdoor Voices, Doing Things Day

Promoting overall fitness

One of those partners was Outdoor Voices, which hosted Doing Things Day with PHA last May, rallying its community across the country to get active. “Over 70 fitness studios, hundreds of ‘recreationalists,’ and a handful of celebrities (Gwyneth Paltrow!) joined us in spreading the word on how approachable, social, and fun activity can be,” Haney explains. And the results were impressive: “We donated our first $50,000 in sales to support PHA.”

While the proceeds will benefit children, the initiative also tapped into the world of workout enthusiasts Obama herself belongs to. After all, she’s a First Lady who’s made the Secret Service follow her to both SoulCycle and Megaformer classes, has showed off her boxing moves, and whose muscles have become an actual descriptor in their own right. (You know what “Michelle Obama arms” are, no?)

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Michelle Obama wellness influence
Photo: [email protected]

The future of FLOTUS-backed healthy initiatives

So do we have to say goodbye to our dear FLOTUS, carrier of the kind of guns we all love (perfect for massaging especially tough kale)?

Not necessarily. Easton says she can see PHA having major legs as it takes on a life of its own after the Obamas leave the White House. “She can get more done by not being the First Lady!” she says, but it’s also crucial that the next administration continues to make promoting good health a priority.

“We want to see our government continue to take an active role in making all of our 100,000 public schools healthier places for kids to eat, learn, and grow,” says Upton.

Hey, even Bill Clinton had a come-to-greens moment (due to his heart health) and is now a vegan…so maybe there’s hope?

Sure, we’re talking Obamas, but the election’s not really about them. Need some insight for November 8?  Check out the Well+Good Healthy Voter Guide. And remember: #ourvotecounts.