Though the subtitle of Michelle Obama's new book, American Grown, promises "the story of the White House Kitchen Garden and gardens across America," its pages are more free-ranging than that -- just as the garden itself is also a way to engage the nation in a larger discussion about how what we eat and the way we live affects our children (the basis of Mrs. Obama's Lets Move! initiative). On these topics the First Lady is passionate and practical -- a style that mirrors her approach to parenthood in general, as Parents learned in this exclusive interview.
Q. Why did you write American Grown?
A. There is such a great curiosity about the White House garden, and it's turned out to be one of the most profound things I will do as First Lady: digging up some dirt.
We have tons of visitors, but not everyone gets a chance to hear the story or to hear about the journey we went through in making that garden possible and how it's impacted the conversation about health and nutrition -- so we wanted to share that story.
Q. Now that we're two years into Lets Move! are there certain aspects of it Parents readers should be taking advantage of?
A. The biggest thing for parents is understanding that this issue is real, that we are seeing increased rates of obesity in our children and communities all across this country. We are encouraging parents to arm themselves with information about the issue and also with solutions. However, there's no one solution for fixing this complicated problem. There are small and meaningful changes that parents can make in their lives that will make all the difference: drinking more water, incorporating more fruits and vegetables, using MyPlate (choosemyplate.gov) as a template for figuring out how to structure meals, finding creative ways to get our kids moving, being advocates in schools by paying attention to what's being served and not being afraid to be a voice for the changes we want to see. Let's Move! is not about government telling people what to do but about providing the info they need in their own lives.
Q. It's inspiring to me that you and the president are able to sit down at 6:30 for a family dinner most nights of the week.
A. As a country, we've kind of lost the sense that that's important. Many of us grew up with those habits intact. I share stories about my own upbringing: We sat down at the little kitchen table, and no matter what my parents were doing or how much they were earning or not earning, sitting down together was important and something we took for granted. Society has pushed us in a different direction because parents are so busy. TV is pervasive, and there are so many distractions that keep families from doing those basic things. I hope Let's Move! has been a reminder to get us back to the simple things we took for granted but that were the foundation that helped us lead healthy lives when we were young. We need to pass these traditions on to the next generation.
Q. In your book you speak about how this issue isn't about how kids look; it's about how they feel about themselves. When I talk to my sons about how they eat I'm careful not to let the conversation turn into one about body image. What type of messages do you try to send, especially raising daughters?
A. I try to approach it as giving my kids information... typically, we'll talk about what a body needs. This is our latest conversation: You would never feed a plant soda -- you would find that idea ridiculous. Plants require water and sunlight. I tell my kids we are like plants, living organisms; and we have to think about the food we put into our body. One soda won't wilt us completely, but we can't dump soda into our system year after year. Those conversations have nothing to do with weight but are about the function food plays in the life of a healthy body.
With my girls, when it comes to exercise it's more about competition and teamwork. I talk to them about how to lose and win gracefully.
Q. I read that you asked them to take part in one sport that they want to do and one sport that you want them to do. How's that working?
A. My older daughter, Malia, gets it. She's 13. Tennis was the sport I made her do and now it's the one she loves. The sport I was making Sasha do was swimming, but that takes a lot of time. The sport she loves is basketball.
I encourage my girls to get comfortable being sweaty, being dirty, physically falling down and getting back up and realizing you will be okay.
Q. What's up next for the White House garden?
A. We are still trying to figure out how to grow a pumpkin, still waiting for the figs on our tree. Every year we do something different. We added mushroom logs last year and now we're producing wonderful mushrooms. We're also still trying to figure out how to get decent berry crops. As gardeners know, you are constantly learning and making mistakes and then waiting a whole season to find out if your solution actually works.
Q. What's next for Let's Move!?
A. This year, in addition to focusing on nutrition and access and affordability issues, we want to drill down on the movement piece of Let's Move! The obesity epidemic has many prongs, and nutrition/diet/access/affordability are all part of it. But we've got to help communities and parents restructure their priorities so we are walking more and having less screen time and more activity time, so play is reincorporated into our culture -- with kids learning how to ride a bike, walk up stairs, do some sit-ups, play hula hoop, jump rope, and all the things we grew up with.
We need to talk to our schools about incorporating physical activity back into the curriculum. Many of our public schools have eliminated recess because of limited resources. We are learning that physical activity is a key to a child's success. You can't ask children to sit and learn math if they haven't gotten a chance to run around and blow off some steam. That's why you see me doing push-ups and jumping jacks. I'm willing to look like a fool if it gets people to move. Kids love it when the grown-ups in their lives play too. My kids love it. Sometimes I embarrass them, but when I'm running around and kicking a ball and doing a flip and showing them how I can jump rope, they get curious. They want to try it. We are going to be doing a lot of playing with kids and families around the country.
If you've got a leg, you can lift it. If you've got an arm, you can raise it. Those are the small things that make change. You don't have to do 25 push-ups in a row tomorrow. We want to get some excitement around physical activity as we've done with good food and good eating.
Originally published in the June 2012 issue of Parents magazine.