Michelle Obama has a message for President Donald Trump: If you want to undo the Obama administration’s healthy eating agenda, get ready for a fight.
"We’ve got to make sure we don’t let anybody take us back," the former first lady said Friday at the annual Partnership for a Healthier America Summit, her first public appearance in Washington since leaving office.
"Every elected official on this planet should understand," Obama said, her voice rising with indignation as she urged moms to make their voices heard. "Don’t play with our children. Don’t do it."
Obama, who remains popular with the public, did not mention Trump by name but railed against the new administration’s moves to roll back some of the nutrition policies she championed in the White House — from school meals to calorie labels. She left no doubt she will publicly rebuke any attempt to wipe out her work on childhood obesity.
"If we really want to make this country great, then our kids need to be healthy and they need to have access to the best," she said. "Not just some of them, but all of them."
Obama’s comments came days after the Trump administration announced it will relax some of the school nutrition standards that are a central part of her Let’s Move! campaign to combat childhood obesity. She discussed her work on children’s health for nearly an hour during an onstage Q&A, where she was noticeably more relaxed and candid compared to speeches she delivered at the summit during her husband’s presidency.
But while she seemed more at ease, her fierce responses underscored the threat posed to her legacy — something she said she views not through a political lens but, rather, as a mother.
“My commitment to these issues is real,” she said. “When you hear me getting riled up in this chair, it’s not politics — it’s parenting that’s really moving me.”
Just last week, the administration announced it is staving off Obama-era sodium limits for school meals that were set to become more strict in coming years. The administration is also giving schools a little more leeway on requirements she had championed to serve whole grains — modest changes that were widely seen as an assault on the Obamas’ food priorities.
Obama bristled at the idea that anyone — let alone the government — would not be on board with schools serving students more nutritious options. "You have to stop and think: Why don’t we want kids to have good food at schools? What is wrong with you?" Obama said, to boisterous applause. "Why would that be political?"
The Department of Agriculture declined to comment on the criticism, other than to say that Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue "has great respect for the former first lady."
The Trump administration also last week delayed an Obama-era rule requiring restaurants, grocery stores and movie theaters to post calorie counts on their menus, a vestige of the Affordable Care Act that has been delayed numerous times over the past seven years due to complaints from convenience stores and pizza chains, among other interests. Trump’s FDA pulled the plug on the labeling deadline four days short of its effective date, leaving companies in the lurch after many had already invested time and resources to meet the requirements.
People have a right to greater disclosure of things like calories and added sugars in what they are eating, Obama said, once again questioning the partisanship over the issue.
"This just isn’t that complicated, you know?” she said, laughing incredulously. “Just tell me what’s in my food. Why is there a problem?”
“’Keep families ignorant,’ that’s all I’m hearing,” she said. "You don’t know what’s in your food. You can’t handle that, mom."
"Consumers out there," she added, "I don’t care where you’re from, or what your party is; I would be highly insulted."
The Trump administration has said it’s aiming to make the menu labeling rule more flexible for businesses, a process that could take years.
With the Obamas now in planning mode and laying the groundwork for their post-White House work, the former first lady reiterated she’s not going to retreat from her passionate advocacy on food and nutrition issues. “We’re not gone,” Obama said. “We’re just breathing, y’all.”
While public health advocates worry the Trump administration will go further to attempt to demolish Obama’s legacy of policies that promote healthier eating — from updated Nutrition Facts labels to a ban on trans fats and moves to dial down sodium in processed foods — there’s still momentum in the private sector for those initiatives.
The Partnership for a Healthier America, a nonprofit that launched during former President Barack Obama’s first term to help support the Let’s Move! campaign, announced 30 new corporate partnerships this week. Major candy makers — representing nearly half of the domestic market — pledged to sell smaller packs, while convenience store chains that serve 160 million people each day committed to stepping up efforts to offer healthier options in corner stores and gas stations.
"There’s more interest in private sector changes than we’ve ever seen,” Larry Soler, CEO of the Partnership for a Healthier America, said, adding: "People may have thought things are kind of slowing down, but, if anything, it’s exactly the opposite — things are speeding up."
Beyond private-sector commitments, Michelle Obama’s allies hope the cultural impact of her White House initiatives will continue to drive change. The White House vegetable garden remains a symbol on the South Lawn, though the Trump administration has not publicized it as Obama did. The former first lady’s supporters are working on a multimillion-dollar campaign aimed at making fruits and vegetables "cool," and they note that consumers are demanding healthier foods at restaurants and grocery stores across the country.
The PHA summit this week had its usual stream of celebrity cameos. NBA star Stephen Curry was in the mix, and actress Gabrielle Union appeared on stage Friday to tout the Obama-championed Drink Up campaign, which urges people to drink more water — an effort subtly devised to reduce sugary drink consumption.
Union praised the fact that bottled water recently became the best-sold beverage in the U.S. “Who would have thought we’d see the day when water would hit the No. 1 spot?” she said. “Clearly, when Michelle Obama asked people to do something, they listened.”