2010-02-25 / Local & State

First Lady Takes Obesity Campaign To Schools

By Patrick Walters ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

PHILADELPHIA (AP) – First lady Michelle Obama on Friday took her campaign against childhood obesity to a city once dubbed America’s fattest, announcing more than $400 million in federal assistance to help bring more grocery stores to underserved communities nationwide.

Obama, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack visited the Fairhill Elementary School in North Philadelphia to discuss access to healthy, affordable food.

Improving access to stores that serve fresh foods is a key part of helping to solve the problem of childhood obesity, Obama said. About 23.5 million Americans live in “food deserts,’’ where they don’t have supermarkets and end up buying less healthy foods from places like convenience stores, she said.

Six years ago, she said, Pennsylvania invested about $30 million in fresh food financing, investments that have helped create 83 supermarket projects across the state.

“If you can do it here, we can do it around the country,’’ said Obama, who visited a grocery store in North Philadelphia earlier in the day.

Speaking to an auditorium of several hundred students, Obama announced plans for tax credits, loans and other funding aimed at helping to bring healthy food retailers to underserved rural and urban communities. Funding would go toward construction and expansion of grocery stores and other projects.

“We know it won’t be easy to solve this obesity crisis,’’ she said. “But if there’s anyone out there who doubts that it can be done, I would urge them to come to Philadelphia and see what you have done here.’’

In 1999, Men’s Fitness magazine named Philadelphia the fattest city in the nation. But Obama praised the city and its school district for their efforts to reduce the number of obese children.

Earlier this month, the first lady announced the public awareness campaign against childhood obesity, an effort she dubbed “Let’s Move.’’

The campaign is geared toward helping parents make better food choices, serving healthier food in schools, making healthy food more available and affordable, and encouraging children to get more exercise.

Some have criticized her for using her own daughters – Malia, 11, and Sasha, 8 – as an example.

The girls were starting to get off-track before the family’s pediatrician gave her a warning, she said. That prompted her to make changes – no more weekday TV, more attention to portion sizes, low-fat milk and more fruits and vegetables.

On Friday, both Obama and Geithner both praised the recent weight loss of food-loving Gov. Ed Rendell, a former Philadelphia mayor, who joined them on the school’s stage.

Calling him “Mr. Svelte,’’ Obama said, “Every time I see him, he gets smaller and smaller.’’

“It’s good to see the governor looking like an athlete again,’’ Geithner said.

Earlier Friday, Obama visited a $15 million Fresh Grocer store that opened in North Philadelphia in December though a public private partnership created to increase the number of supermarkets in underserved communities.

She walked through the aisles, ordered a strawberry-banana smoothie and shook hands with shoppers.

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