Anti-obesity programs fail, so feds try again

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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The decades-long federal campaign against obesity has achieved a perfect record of failure.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Tuesday the nation’s least-fat state, Colorado, has joined the other 49 states with an obesity rate of at least 20 percent.

Washington’s response to its decades of failures with anti-obesity programs is the creation of another program campaign.

The White House announced Wednesday that it had persuaded several grocery chains to sell fruits and vegetables in poor areas populated by roughly 9.5 million people.

“Make no mistake about it: This is a big deal. It is a really big deal,” First Lady Michelle Obama said at a July 20 White House event.

“Think about the impact that we can have on our children and their futures — on their health, their well-being, their ability to succeed in school and more importantly in life,” said the first lady, who is also championing her “Let’s Move!” project to promote exercise and improved diets. “Because that’s really what this is about in the end. This is about our kids.”

So far the “Healthy Food Financing Initiative” has cost $35 million in federal funds. The White House has requested another $330 million next year. (Federal government to shut down 800 data centers in effort to save $300 billion)

But previous federal efforts to curb obesity have had little or no impact on the nation’s eating preferences and habits.

In 2000, federal health professionals announced the “Healthy People 2010” education initiative, which sought to reduce the national obesity rate of 30 percent to 15 percent by 2010.

But the national obesity rate is now above 33 percent, according to federal definitions.

The definition of obesity is set by federal health professionals. Their calculations are controversial, in part, because the rate of premature death is lower among Americans in the “overweight” category than among those who fit into the “normal” weight category.

Since 2000, federal medical-professionals and their allies in the anti-obesity sector have pleaded, cajoled, nagged, stigmatized, lobbied, taxed, litigated and regulated, but the nation’s collective belt size has steadily notched upwards, according to the CDC’s data.

In 2010, twelve states had obesity rates greater than 30 percent, up from zero states in 2000, according to the CDC data announced this week.

Twenty-four states had obesity rates between 25 percent and 30 percent, up from zero states in 2000.

In 2000, 27 states had an obesity rate below 20 percent. In 2010, no state had an obesity rate less than 20 percent.

Colorado was the last state to move above the 20 percent threshold, besting Hawaii, Massachusetts and Connecticut, which flopped over the line in in 2007.

Despite its graduation to the 20 percent category, Colorado remains the thinnest state.

The fattest states also tend to be poorer southern states, where there’s also relatively little stigma against fat. The thinnest states tend to be wealthier, and to include more university-educated Americans who choose to exercise more and to stigmatize obesity.

Melody Barnes, who heads the White House’s domestic policy council, justifies this new anti-obesity grocery project was also justified as a jobs project. “We believe that tens of thousands of jobs will be created” during the five-year program, she told reporters during an afternoon press conference.

However, transportation officials need to manage local policies so people can get to grocery stores, and urban planners must ensure that stores are located close to home, said Barnes. “We have to look at all [matters] if we are to address this issue” of obesity, she said.

“If a parent wants to pack a piece of fruit in a child’s lunch, if a parent wants to add some lettuce for a salad at dinner, they shouldn’t have to take three city buses, or pay some expensive taxi to go to another community to make that possible,” the first lady added.

The White House event included executives from several major chains, including Walgreens, Wal-Mart and SuperValu, all of whom need to maintain good relations with local, state and federal agencies and legislators. The companies also need to compete with each other; Wal-Mart has already begun adding grocery sections to many of its retail stores.

The first lady wants to expand her grocery campaign even further. “The companies represented here today are only a tiny fraction of the total number of food retailers in this country,” she told her audience at the White House event. “If they can step up and make these investments, then there is absolutely no reason why every food retailer in this country can’t find some way to get involved as well.  Right?  Can I get an Amen or something?”

Although the “Healthy People 2010” campaign completely failed to meet its stated goals, a July 20 White House statement declared: “Today’s announcement [on grocery stores] is a historic step towards addressing that issue and achieving the primary goal of Let’s Move! — solving the problem of childhood obesity within a generation.”