June 1 2012
Mrs. Obama is busy
campaigning for her husband’s reelection promoting her new book American Grown about the White House garden. It’s interesting to listen to the First Lady talk about her love of gardening. She doesn’t just love it; she sees gardening as a salve to cure childhood obesity. Appearing on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart this week, Stewart asked her about the challenge of convincing people to make healthy food decisions and she responded by saying:
“The garden is the way to begin the conversation. I learned in changing my kid’s habits, if they are involved in the growing process of food and they get a sense of where it comes from and they are engaged, they tend to be excited about it. The garden is a really important catalyst for that discussion.”
It is indeed great to have kids involved in seeing how food is grown and, to be fair, I think the First Lady offers some good advice about the importance of nutrition and physical activity in a person’s daily life. But let’s be honest: Childhood obesity won’t be tackled by gardening. What Mrs. Obama and her pals in the mainstream media (and the comedy circuit) can’t seem to understand is that a child’s eating habits are profoundly impacted by a parent’s involvement in their nutritional development. Certainly when you take time to plant a garden with your children, as I did this spring (our experience consisted mainly of me yelling at my young boys to stop digging up the seeds I just planted), the benefit to the child comes not from the actual digging and planting, but the time a parent spends with a child explaining the importance of healthy food.
Mrs. Obama has some experience in this area. In 2010, when she talked publicly about her daughters’ weights ticking up, she discussed her decision to make changes to their diets and habits — more vegetables, low-fat milk, less snacks, less television, more play time outside. She has also referenced her own mother, Marian Robinson, who expected her children to eat what was put in front of them and who considered dessert was a rare treat. Mrs. Robinson had it right. She raised a healthy daughter who clearly has a good relationship with food and understands the importance of exercise. Unfortunately, the First Lady fails to see her own experience with strong parenting as the true foundation of a solution for childhood obesity.
Instead the American public is told that childhood obesity is caused by a variety of social problems and outside influences which require government intervention. It’s school lunches, it’s fast food, it’s advertisements on television, it’s violent neighborhoods, it’s toys in Happy Meals, it’s video games, it’s soda, salty snacks, sweets, candy, food deserts, and a lack of school and home gardens.
There’s a reason the First Lady supports this narrative. If lax parenting is causing childhood obesity, then the solution is more personal responsibility; if, however, obesity is caused by these outside forces, it’s easier to push the idea that government has a role in solving the problem. The First Lady advocates a range of big-government solutions to obesity: from pumping more tax dollars into the school-lunch program to expanding these feeding programs to include breakfast, dinner, after-school, and summer feeding. She has backed federal grants for school gardening programs and has endorsed efforts to regulate the food and restaurant industries. Yet, she manages to avoid discussing the uncomfortable (and politically much more knotty) reality that parents are increasingly leaving their child’s nutrition to unnamed cafeteria workers.
The truly distressing truth is that the First Lady and members of the Obama administration don’t really want parents to have the primary responsibility for feeding their children. They think the government can do it better. In fact, if you look at the Let’s Move website, it states that mayors and local officials should:
Which begs an interesting question: Where would all that fresh produce from the garden go? The squirrels, I guess; because no one’s going to be eating at home if they’re all enrolled in these government feeding programs. To be frank, the First Lady’s advocacy of family gardens confuses to me. At the same time Mrs. Obama talks breathlessly about the benefits of a home garden, she is also often bemoaning the conditions of the average American family — a family too busy, overworked, and too poor to cook simple meals at home. According to her confusing talking points, that same busy single mother of four children working three jobs is too busy to cook simple meals for her family but she has time to go outside to weed and water her garden?
Americans would be better served to hear some simple advice: Gardening can be fun and rewarding, but if healthy eating is your goal, you don’t have to participate in the time-consuming project of setting up a home garden. Just purchase inexpensive vegetables at the grocery store. Cabbage, carrots, potatoes, onions, bananas, canned beans, and frozen fruits and vegetables are all affordable and healthy items that are easy to prepare. Cooking shows are now ubiquitous and most serve that busy parent demographic. From Rachel Ray’s 30-minute Meals to a new show called Ten Dollar Dinners, the Food Network offers programming that provide easy to understand and healthy recipes at affordable prices.
But instead of pointing to what the private sector has already provided (a 24-hour food network), the federal government has to recreate the wheel — providing recipes on the USDA website. And on the First Lady’s Let’s Move website, you can even get a recipe for a simple berry bread putting from fruit grown in the garden. That’s right folks; the feds are even in the business of providing recipes. Talk about government overreach.
It’s a little galling that the First Lady portrays gardening as an easy thing to do. It simply isn’t easy and it isn’t cost effective. Nor is it an option during Washington D.C.’s (and most of the northern states) cold winters. I’ve planted a garden for seven summers straight in the Virginia clay in my own backyard and now have a very clear understanding of the phrase “go west, young man.” There’s a reason eager farmers sought better soil.
Mrs. Obama also manages to skip over the fact that her garden is maintained, not by her, but by paid staffers and a legion of local school kids who are regularly invited to plant, weed, and harvest the garden. If I had a regular supply of tiny, eager humans to weed and water my garden, I’d do it as well. But I don’t.
I’m a busy mom on a budget who knows it’s my job to feed my kids. It isn’t the government’s job to do it for me and it isn’t Michelle Obama’s job to encourage me to give up that responsibility to government minders who think they can do it better.
– Julie Gunlock is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and directs their Women for Food Freedom project.