Michelle Obama visits Atlanta, touts fight against childhood obesity

Touting what she called a fundamental shift in how America lives and eats, first lady Michelle Obama made Georgia her prime stop Wednesday to celebrate the first anniversary of her "Let's Move" campaign aimed at improving children's health.

"It's a conversation about what our kids eat and how active they are," Obama told parents and community leaders at North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, one of two stops she made in metro Atlanta. "About how they feel about themselves. And about what that means, not just their physical and emotional health, but for their success in school and in life."

To that end, Obama unveiled a public service campaign to provide parents and families information on healthy food and physical activity. She spent the early afternoon at Atlanta Public School's Burgess-Peterson Academy handing out snacks of fresh blueberries and touring the East Atlanta school's organic garden.

"I'm so proud of you," Obama told students in Megan Kiser's second-grade class, where one student, 7-year-old Laniya Bentley, had already decided to dedicate the pink Valentine's Day's planter she was making to the first lady. "She's beautiful," Laniya said, before being reminded why she was receiving such a special visit.

"Eating right is not only good for your body, but it's good for your mind," Obama told the children, before touring a garden filled with winter crops.

Obama's trip to Georgia was not accidental. Georgia has the second-highest rate of childhood obesity in the United States. Nearly one in three children ages 10 to 17 in Georgia are considered to be overweight or obese, according to the 2007 National Survey of Children's Health, likely because of a combination of poor nutrition and lack of physical activity, and influenced by societal factors including family dynamics, school systems and societal norms. In turn, childhood obesity can lead to diabetes, high cholesterol and other potentially deadly problems.

Obama peppered her 15-minute talk in Alpharetta with personal stories of children and parents she has met across the country.

"You asked for more fresh food in your community," she said. "You wanted healthier, more affordable options on those grocery store shelves. You asked for more information about the food you buy for your kids, for better food in your kids school.”

Obama said that obesity is not just some public threat, it’s personal.

“This is the kind of stuff that keeps us lying awake at night,” she said. “Unfortunately kids don’t come with an instruction manual. I wish they did. Sasha needs a big one,” she said, drawing applause.

Carla Rosson and Chrissie Lowther, physical education teachers at Matt Elementary School, said the first lady's words inspired them to go back to Forsyth County and get to work. They said students have physical education classes for 40 minutes two days a week, but they need more. Their school started a health and wellness committee this year. "We have to really push this issue," Rosson said.

Tai Walker, PTA president at Stribling Elementary School in Norcross, said her group was "pushing to change the lunch menu in Gwinnett County schools and ... get another playground to promote physical education."

One of the biggest successes that the "Let's Move" campaign touts is a new school nutrition law, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which was signed in December by President Obama. The law gives the federal government a year to develop nutritional standards for all food sold on school campuses during the school day, including in vending machines and fundraisers, as well as provides a larger reimbursement for school lunches and establishes funding for after-school meals.

The first lady's program focuses on improving nutrition for children both at home and in schools, and increasing physical activity. It's pushes to double the number of schools that meet the HealthierUS School Challenge, and increase access to more fresh fruit and vegetables in school cafeterias.

"You can't ignore the fact that we have a crisis with childhood obesity," said Burgess-Peterson Principal Robin Robbins, who greeted Obama when she arrived at the school earlier Wednesday among dignitaries that included Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson.

Students practically tripped over each other to give Obama a hug, which she dispensed freely. She said President Obama loves to snack on figs; her favorite herb is basil; and that the kids need to read a lot and work hard if they wanted to be president -- which several declared they did.

Obama's garden tour was guided by two master gardeners who volunteer at the school, Adam Waterson and Michelle Rice. At the right times in season, the raised beds teem with okra and sunflowers, foils to the dusty-pink flower heads of nearby sedum plants that tempt passing butterflies. Burgess-Peterson also boasts a 10-tree orchard.

"Coach" Betty Jackson, a driving force behind the school's wellness efforts, said the240 students started the day like they always do, with a "jammin' minute" of exercise and a healthy eating tip delivered by children chosen to be student wellness ambassadors.

"I'm honored," Jackson said of Obama's visit. "It says what I'm doing for the children is actually working."