First Lady Michelle Obama earlier this afternoon spoke to crowd at the Lenfest PAL Center in the Hunting Park section of Philadelphia. Standing behind Obama on the stage were about a dozen municipal leaders, including Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and Newark, N.J. Mayor Cory Booker.
But the event wasn’t political. In fact, the First Lady went out of her way to say that the issue on which she was speaking, childhood obesity, did not follow party lines.
Obama was there to tout her “Let’s Move!” initiative, which is dedicated to “solving the challenge of childhood obesity within a generation,” according to its website. U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Bluffton, Ind. Mayor Ted Ellis — both of whom were on hand — said The National League of Cities is offering long-term support for “Let’s Move! Cities, Towns and Counties,” which grows out of the work the First Lady has done.
“The National League of Cities is joining ‘Let’s Move!’ to give local elected officials technical assistance and information they need to take action right away,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said.
Obama said chiseling away at the national childhood obesity problem has to begin locally and added, “I’ve said this again and again: There is no one-size-fits-all policy or program that can solve this problem and Washington certainly does not have all the answers on this issue, instead, many of the best, most innovative, most effective solutions start in our city halls, [and] in our town and county councils.”
Obama continued, “More than anything else, these commitments are what ‘Let’s Move! Cities Towns and Counties’ is all about. It’s about supporting leaders like you who on the front line — our mayors — working to solve our childhood obesity epidemic so that all of our children in this country can grow up healthy.”
The First Lady, continuing on the non-partisan theme, said childhood obesity costs tens of millions of dollars in healthcare costs, and said the problem affects the workforce and the economy.
“When kids aren’t healthy, they miss more days of school and that means higher absenteeism as parents have to stay home and care for their kids,” Obama said, “and all of that doesn’t just affect the businesses in your community today, it also affects whether new businesses will come and set up shop in the years ahead …”
Following the remarks, Obama and Nutter cut the ribbon on a playground created by KaBOOM, a national, nonprofit playground company.
(Neighborhood kids then forgot about the First Lady and started to play.)
Local residents agree that childhood obesity is a problem in their area.
Nina Bullard sat on her father’s porch, watching people line up to gain entrance to the Lenfest Center prior to the First Lady’s arrival. Bullard, who lives two houses down from her father, said she’s excited that the First Lady is coming for a visit, but is more excited about her initiative.
“I just found out this morning that at the First Lady is coming,” Bullard said. Nothing like this ever happens on this street, and now the First Lady is in the neighborhood? Come on!”
Bullard pointed to the Lenfest Center, and said that the building is a fitting venue for the visit. The childhood obesity rate in the neighborhood is high, she said, and the relatively new center has helped curb that.
“The children really need that here,” Bullard said. “I think it’s been here since 2008, and it really helps keep them in better shape and it keeps them out of trouble — keeps them off the streets."
John Kinney lives across from the center too — but on the other side of Pike Street. He was relaxing with some neighbors, watching the news vans, police and Secret Service getting set up.
Kinney said he’s proud of his neighborhood — the steps it’s taking to help the children become more fit — but adds the steps came too late.
“I support what the First Lady is doing with childhood obesity, and it’s needed, but [the initiative is] years too late,” Kinney said. “Just like the Lenfest Center. I think it’s a beautiful thing, but it came years too late. We needed something for the kids years ago, but at least they have something now. And they’re even building new baseball fields in [nearby] Hunting Park.”
According to the “Let’s Move!” website, nearly one in three children in the country is obese, and nearly 40 percent of children in Hispanic and black communities are obese.
Lenfest PAL tennis instructor Mark Zayas, of northeast Philadelphia, got to work a little early and had to wait as Secret Service swept the building. Zayas, an Archbishop Ryan High School Student, said he has been teaching local children tennis at the center for the past couple of years. He said more kids should take advantage of facilities like the Lenfest Center.
“The obesity rate is bigger than it should be,” Zayas said. “If kids have the opportunity to come to a place like this, why wouldn’t they — especially in the summer time."
The cause of the spike in childhood obesity? According to the website, children are less active and spend more than seven hours per day using “entertainment media.” The website also states cutbacks in gym classes and afterschool programs and an increase in portion sizes.
Following her appearance in Philadelphia, the First Lady left for Birmingham, Ala. to be briefed on tornado recovery and to meet children affected by the April 2011 tornado.