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First lady’s childhood obesity fight gains traction

Michelle Obama had help from chef Julie Elkinton at a “Let’s Move!” event in a Darden restaurant in Maryland. Jacqueline McElroy, 9, and her mother, Charisse, participated.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press/file 2011

Michelle Obama had help from chef Julie Elkinton at a “Let’s Move!” event in a Darden restaurant in Maryland. Jacqueline McElroy, 9, and her mother, Charisse, participated.

WASHINGTON — Walmart is putting special labels on some store-brand products to help shoppers quickly spot healthier items. Millions of schoolchildren are helping themselves to vegetables from salad bars in their lunchrooms, while kids’ meals at Olive Garden and Red Lobster restaurants come with a side of fruit or vegetables and a glass of low-fat milk.

The changes are in response to a campaign against child obesity that Michelle Obama began waging three years ago. More changes are in store.

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Influencing policy posed more of a challenge, and not everyone welcomed her effort, criticizing it as a case of unwanted government intrusion.

Still, nutrition advocates and others credit her for using her clout to help bring a range of interests to the table. They hope the increased awareness she has generated through speeches, her garden, and her physical exploits will translate into further reductions in childhood obesity rates long after she leaves the White House.

About one-third of US children are overweight or obese, which puts them at increased risk for any number of life-threatening illnesses, including diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

While there is evidence of modest declines in childhood obesity rates in parts of the country, the changes are due largely to steps taken before the president’s wife launched “Let’s Move!” in February 2010.

With the program entering its fourth year, the first lady embarked Wednesday on a two-day promotional tour with stops in Mississippi, Illinois, and Missouri. She has been talking up the program on daytime and late-night television shows, on the radio, and in public service announcements with Big Bird. She also plans discussions next week on Google and Twitter.

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Larry Soler, president and chief executive of the Partnership for a Healthier America, said Obama has “been the leader in making the case for the time is now in childhood obesity and everyone has a role to play in overcoming the problem.” The nonpartisan, nonprofit partnership was created as part of “Let’s Move!” to work with the private sector and hold companies accountable for changes they promised.

Conservatives accused Obama of going too far and dictating what people should and shouldn’t eat after she played a major behind-the-scenes role in the passage in 2010 of a child nutrition law that required schools to make foods healthier.

Despite the criticism, broad public support exists for some of the changes, according to a recent Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll.

More than eight in 10 of those surveyed, 84 percent, support requiring more physical activity in schools, and 83 percent favor the government providing nutritional guidelines and information about ­diet and exercise. Seventy percent favor having restaurants put calorie counts on menus, and 75 percent consider overweightness and obesity a serious problem in this country, according to the Nov. 21-Dec. 14 phone survey of 1,011 adults.

Food industry representatives say Obama has influenced their own efforts.

Mary Sophos of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents the country’s largest food companies, including General Mills and Kellogg’s, said an industry effort to label the fronts of food packages with nutritional content gained momentum after Obama, a mother of two, attended one of their meetings in 2010 and encouraged them to do more.

Besides labeling its store brands, Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, also pledged to cut sodium and added sugars by 25 percent and 10 percent, respectively, by 2015, and ­remove industrially produced trans fats.

Leslie Dach, an executive vice president, said sodium in packaged bread has been cut by 13 percent, and added sugar in refrigerated flavored milk, popular among kids, has been cut by more than 17 percent. He said Walmart shoppers have told the company that eating healthier is important to them. Giving customers what they want is also good for business.

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