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Ten Questions with Michelle Obama

Editor Hunter Lewis sat down with the first lady recently in Washington, D.C., to discuss food, family, her program Let’s Move!, and why our future depends on what kindergartners eat today. Here is the edited interview.

Image Credit: Photo: Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty

Hunter Lewis: Congratulations on the fifth anniversary of Let’s Move! Is it where you hoped it would be five years in?

Mrs. Obama: We’re really proud of the changes we’ve seen across the country—most proud of the fact that it feels like there’s a new norm in how families think about food and what’s healthy. You see more people planning community gardens. You see the changes in the school lunches, improvements in standards, more veggies and whole grains. You see more schools incorporating physical fitness into the school day.  

So [these are some] things we had hoped to see, because how you make real change is really by starting from the bottom up and giving communities and families and churches and neighborhoods [the tools] to make those changes that are going to have the real impact on the ground.

HL: Take us back to your family table at the apartment on the South Side of Chicago. I’ve read your mom shopped at the supermarket once a week, and she did a rotation of lemon chicken and spaghetti and meatballs.

Mrs. Obama: Absolutely. She was typical of her generation. She knew how to shop and cook on a budget, because we were a working-class family, so budgets were important. And I distinctly remember every weekend my mom making a list of what we would be eating that week, going to the supermarket with her, picking out the menu plan—it was usually something big and fancy like roast beef on Sundays, which would be used for lunches over the Monday or Tuesday. 

She was famous for her lemon chicken, and that was a good Sunday dish. There was always the sad and unfortunate liver Wednesdays. That was during the time—my father loved liver, and it just depressed me and my brother to no end when we knew it was liver time. 

Weekends were more fun. You do fish on Friday, and maybe once a week we’d do takeout, get pizza. But there was a pattern to what we ate. They were familiar flavors. There was my mom’s lasagna, and we had dinner around the kitchen table. My dad was a shift worker, so there were some dinner times when he was at work, but whenever he was there we would sit around the table with the plastic tablecloth, and that’s when we would catch up and we’d talk about what we were eating, talk about what was going on in the day. 

And it’s that tradition that Barack and I really try to incorporate in our lives, even though we’re extremely busy in the White House. We’ve found that we’ve been able to have dinner every—almost every night together, between 6:30 and 7:00.  We have a bigger table and somebody else is doing the cooking, but the conversation and the mood and the tone are still the same. It’s our most important time of the day.

HL: Now, [when you were] a child, obesity was not an epidemic. A couple generations ago, we moved at a slower pace. How did we get to this point now, two generations later, where we need Let’s Move!?

Mrs. Obama: Well, I think it’s not one thing that we can point to that’s caused the challenges that we’re facing. It’s a little bit of everything. Folks don’t cook as much. There’s more processed foods. People are eating out. That was my case when I was a working mother, a lot of takeout. 

Kids have too many options for sedentary activity. We have hundreds of television channels, whereas when I was growing up you had seven. On Saturday, kids’ programming stopped at noon, and once that was done you had nothing else to do on a Saturday but go out and play. That’s not the case now; kids can watch cartoons 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

In the schools there have been tremendous changes that have led to some challenges. Recess has been taken away from the school day. PE is becoming less and less of a sort of reality in many schools who are dealing with funding issues. 

So this is why the challenges we face require all of us to step up. We have to educate families a bit more about how to think about eating and cooking and shopping and budgeting. But communities have to find ways to incorporate activity into folks’ lives. 

We’re pleased with the changes we’re seeing at the school level through Let’s Move Active Schools. We’re seeing thousands of schools that are now finding creative, cost-effective ways to incorporate physical activity into the day, even if they’ve had to eliminate PE or recess. They’re really getting creative about getting kids up and moving for 5- or 10-minute spurts of activity, doing things that can be done in the classroom throughout the day.

It’s going to take a lot of creativity and ingenuity to sort of push past the kind of societal changes that have led us to this place.

HL: Now, you’ve been candid about—there was a point where you realized that you and your husband maybe had gotten off track with the girls. I mean, I’ve got a 3-year-old daughter at home and a 1-year-old daughter, and I’m the family cook, and it’s not easy.

Mrs. Obama: It is not easy. You come home, you’re tired, you’ve been working all day. Unlike my mom, we didn’t learn how to cook. That wasn’t something my mother stressed for me. We came from the generation where my mom wanted me to go to college and law school, and she always said, “You’ll learn how to cook,” but that’s not something she pressed. 

So I was in school. I had a career. By the time my kids were born, that’s when I started focusing on, How do I feed them? With those sort of limited skills, sometimes I would use processed food a little bit more. I relied on takeout probably more than I should’ve. And my kids were always active. But our pediatrician—you go to the well-child visits and they do the height, the weight, they measure BMI. Our pediatrician would chart it across a curve. And there was one appointment where he looked at the numbers and he said, “Something is a little off.” And that was the first time I even thought that I might be doing something wrong. I thought I had it all together. But when he said that, I really had to step back and think about, What am I doing on a day-to-day basis?

So we made very simple changes as a result of what our pediatrician told us. I cooked probably one or two more meals, and it was something simple—maybe a baked chicken, couscous, steamed broccoli. I kept it simple but made sure there was always a vegetable and always a good grain on the plate.

But more importantly, we just eliminated all the processed foods, all those packaged lunches, all of the canned juices. We started using fresh-squeezed juice and added more water into their diet. So when the kids were thirsty, we would even mix water in juice just to dilute it so it would get them out of that habit of wanting that sugary taste. And the kids adapted to the changes very quickly. By the time we went back for the next visit, our pediatrician said, “What have you done?” And I was like, “What?” He said, “I haven’t seen these numbers change in such a short period of time in this way in a while.” And that’s when we started having the conversation of just how easy—it’s about information and knowledge. I didn’t know, but once I had the information, it was fairly easy to make the changes.

So that’s one of the reasons why Let’s Move! is so personal to me—because it’s one of those things where I’m thinking, look, if I didn’t figure this out, I’m sure there are millions of families and parents who are getting it wrong, not even knowing it, and not knowing where to begin to try to get their family’s health back on track.

HL: You have to be empowered.

Mrs. Obama: Absolutely. And you’ve got to have the information. People don’t—I think most people think that if it’s on TV and it’s being advertised, it must be OK. But if you’re not reading labels and thinking about sugar content and looking at whether there’s real food in the food that you’re eating … I remember, actually, Sam Kass [former executive director of Let’s Move! and White House chef], at one point—we first met him because he was one of the people early on when we were campaigning who came in to help me cook while I started campaigning, because I just didn’t have the time to do it. And he was a core of our processed-food elimination. 

And my kids loved the macaroni and cheese in a box. And he said, if it’s not real food then we’re not going to do it. If we want macaroni and cheese, we’ll cook it with real milk and real cheese. He said, there’s nothing wrong with mac and cheese, but it’s got to be real food. 

So my oldest daughter [Malia], who was probably 8 at the time, he took a block of cheese and he said, if you can cut this cheese up into the powder that is the cheese of the boxed macaroni and cheese, then we’ll use it. She sat there for 30 minutes trying to pulverize a block of cheese into dust. I mean, she was really focused on it, and it just didn’t work, so she had to give up. And from then on, we stopped eating macaroni and cheese out of a box, because cheese dust is not food, as was the moral of that story. 

HL: Now, the Let’s Move! team has mobilized an unprecedented number of federal, state, and local organizations and businesses and schools, and you’ve got a whole crew of different people involved in this. What have been the biggest challenges the past five years?

Mrs. Obama: Change is hard for anybody. And when you’re talking about food, food is really personal. So when you’re telling people to rethink their dietary habits that they’ve lived with all their lives, it’s really personal.

So finding a way to deliver a message of change that’s positive, that’s not accusatory, it’s uplifting, it’s fun, and it doesn’t place blame but gives people the information to kind of come to their own realizations about what they want out of life. And starting with kids has been an important first step because, as I’ve always said, parents will do for their kids what they won’t do for themselves.

And kids are leaders in that way. I mean, that’s one of the reasons why I’m confident that the school lunch changes will eventually be embraced by kids. Because we’re really thinking about the kids who are kindergartners today. If all they know are whole grains and vegetables, by the time they’re graduating from high school, this will be their norm; they won’t know anything different.

So change is hard for everyone, but keeping it positive, keeping it fun has been one of the ways we’ve tried to confront that particular challenge.

HL: You talked about some of the great things that have happened in the past five years. What are your metrics for success now, and what have been some of the most important victories?

Mrs. Obama: We measure this in terms of a generation. One of the things we stated in the Let’s Move! goal, or mission, is that we want to eliminate childhood obesity in a generation. So we’re looking at those kids who are coming into kindergarten right now, who are coming out of preschools who have now adopted new standards, and they’re serving different snacks. These kids are starting from nursery school, getting whole grains and fish and brown rice. I’m thinking about what happens to those kids [when they] go to high school, and they’re used to every day having a vegetable and a fruit, and they’re getting more activity.

We’re looking at that kid going through high school and then entering college with a whole new set of habits and taste buds. These kids will be acclimated to different tastes, and then they’ll go into college with that set of information and those skills and those norms. And hopefully they’ll become the voices of their generation for how to eat and live and build a quality life. We’re looking at those kids, and when they start to raise their own kids and they start passing on those habits to the next generation. 

So it’s truly a generational goal.  And I think one of the most impactful things that we’ve done today when we look back on—I’ve said it before—are the changes in the school lunch program. I mean, millions and millions of children rely on the school lunch program for the vast majority of their nutritional calories. Many poor kids are getting two meals a day in the schools, and if those meals are the healthiest that we can give them, no matter what happens at home, they’re going to be ahead of the curve.

So what happens in the schools is really impactful because that’s where you reach the most kids. For the first time, they know what a turnip looks like, and they know what a fresh tomato tastes like, and they know what it does for their bodies.

HL: It’s really interesting. The more I hear you talk about this, I think a lot about Jones Valley Teaching Farm in Birmingham, where Cooking Light is based. And we’ve partnered with the farm to teach healthy cooking classes to elementary school students and their families. And we use produce from the farm—we use simple recipes that you can make in 30 minutes or less. And the spaghetti is one of them; we made it last week with the kids. They told me to tell you hello.

Mrs. Obama: Hey! 

HL: And it’s been very educational for us because it’s taught us about not just using local ingredients, but also about the practical, affordable recipes. And there’s been so much in the news lately about family dinners. What’s your take on the practicality and the affordability?

Mrs. Obama: It’s doable—people just need the training and the education. What we do know is that the food you cook is healthier, and it can be more affordable, but it takes some skills. 

Buying a whole chicken and cutting it up is vastly cheaper than getting chicken parts, but if you’ve never cut up a whole chicken, that’s an intimidating thing, to start out with a whole chicken and turn it into something that’s familiar. But if you learn how to cut up a chicken, that’s going to save you money. The pasta dishes, those 30-minute dishes, that’s the cost of a box of pasta; it’s some tomatoes, it’s some basil, it’s boiling pasta, it’s adding in a little flavoring and seasoning, and you have a delicious meal. It’s quick. It’s fast. It becomes faster the more you do it.

One of the reasons why we’re pushing cooking and family meals is because we know that our culture is fascinated with food. The channels that have food competitions, and the wonderful magazines like this one that are highlighting—people are obsessed, but if they have the tools, I’m confident that they’re going to try some of this stuff out.

When I was shopping and cooking, I just had my routine down. So I spent maybe 20 minutes in the grocery store because I knew what I needed for the week, and I knew what aisle to go to, I knew how fast I needed to get in and out. And the more I did it, the more efficient I got at it. We just need to kick-start families into the process because initially, it can be intimidating. A lot of people think that a meal requires some sautéing and sauces and double boilers. I mean, it looks really intimidating. But broiling a chicken is probably one of the simplest, quickest things you can do.

And that’s what we want to encourage more families to do in a way that’s fun and affordable. It is completely within our capabilities as parents and families to make those changes.

HL:  You and your husband have brought a lot of attention to food in the White House, and there’s a blog of record, you’ve written a book about the garden, there are honeybee hives, and there’s now a White House ale. 

Mrs. Obama: Yes, it’s delicious.

HL: Why did you and your husband decide to make food such a big part of your platforms?

Mrs. Obama: Because health was at the core of my husband’s key policy goals in this administration. And whether it’s making sure that millions of people have access to affordable insurance so that they can get their preventative care and get their mammograms and take their kids to well-child visits, or whether it’s just making sure people understand that the most powerful thing that they can do for their overall health is feed their bodies good nutritious food — if you don’t like the doctor, if you don’t like government, if you don’t like folks messing with your life, the best thing to do is make sure you’re healthy. Because that’s going to increase your odds for making sure that you don’t have to deal with the system.

So I’ve always found that the work that we’re doing with Let’s Move! is completely in accord with what my husband’s goals are for improving the overall health of our country and saving us as a nation billions of dollars every single year.

All these initiatives are going to save us money. They’re going to make us feel better. They’re going to put us in a position to be more productive as a society. 

We can get ahead of the curve on this issue. And if we sort of step back and look at the society that we can have, with everyone being able to go to a doctor on a regular basis, where type 2 diabetes is a thing of the past, where preventable heart disease and strokes are a thing of the past, where people are looking at fresh vegetables and fruits as being medicinal in so many ways, and where every day, people are up and moving in some way, shape, or form … 

You don't have to be an Olympic athlete to be healthy, but you do need to walk your dog or take your kids to the park periodically and throw a football around. And it’s that mobility and that ability to move and to just feel strong in their body—you see that with senior citizens. That’s freedom.

We underestimate it, but my goal personally is that when I’m 80 and 90 years old, I want to be moving around. I want to be able to travel. I want to be able to walk up a temple or a ruin on my own and see the world. And I can only do that if I’ve been investing in my health now. 

And just imagine if we’ve got kids 20, 30, 40 years younger than we are doing that now, they’re going to be some of the strongest 80- and 90-year-olds we’ve ever seen. And that’s our dream.  

HL: My wife is an RD, and she said you pay the grocer now or the doctor later.

Mrs. Obama: Yes, absolutely, absolutely.

HL: Let’s talk about the garden. Like you, Eleanor Roosevelt understood the symbolism of the White House vegetable garden. And your mom, I read, also worked in her family’s victory garden as a child. Did you take any inspiration from them when you were overseeing the planting of the White House garden?

Mrs. Obama: Yes, absolutely. Eleanor Roosevelt is one of my idols. She is probably one of the greatest first ladies that have ever lived, with her active engagement in this country and being able to shift norms in ways that are important. So when we started imagining what it would be like to have a full-blown vegetable garden on the South Lawn, it was definitely true that Eleanor Roosevelt was part of the inspiration. As we started having these conversations, that’s when I started remembering the stories that not just my mother but my father told me of the way things worked on the South Side of Chicago. There were victory gardens everywhere. Families that were poor—folks that came from large families, like my parents, where there were six, seven kids each—you relied heavily on those gardens to incorporate vegetables. And that was a tradition.

My father’s mother was a really great cook. But she believed in having at least two vegetables on the plate at every meal—lunch and dinner. And she was a working woman, but she would come home, and she would cook. And a lot of the vegetables that she served us and her kids growing up came from the vegetable truck that would come around the neighborhoods. My dad worked on one of those vegetable trucks when he was young. And he remembers calling out, “Fresh tomatoes,” and whatever was there for the day. That was a part of the black community on the South Side of Chicago.

And you think about how did we lose that just in almost a generation or two. But it’s not that far away. The memories are still there. And we can get back to those traditions fairly easily. But we have to be deliberate about it. It won’t happen by accident. People are busier today. Life is different. We’re never going to go back to the way things were when my grandma was coming up. But we have to find those new norms—the new healthier norms. How do we make that work in our modern-day families without making people feel judged or burdened by the limitations that are real?

So we’ve been proud of the many partners who have stepped up to begin thinking through that process, thinking about how do we introduce a new version of home ec into schools that is available to boys and girls. It’s important for men to know how to cook and to budget and to shop because now you’ve got fathers who are playing that role in households just as much as mothers do. We’re getting grocery store manufacturers to produce foods with lower sodium. We’ve got athletes who are stepping up who are reminding us that part of their training isn’t just how they move their bodies, but how they nourish it, as well. 

So everyone is stepping up in important ways. And that’s how you shift the culture. It’s not just the policy at the top. It’s really what kids see every day on TV. It’s what’s marketed to them. It’s what their parents are saying, what they’re hearing in their classrooms, what they’re watching their heroes in sports and entertainment do. That’s what shifts the culture.

HL: We talked a little bit about Mrs. Roosevelt and how she carved out a dynamic career at this White House. You’ve said that you want to make Let’s Move! your legacy. What will you continue to do once you leave the White House to promote healthy eating and physical activity and family cooking?

Mrs. Obama: Well, because our goals are generational, clearly we won’t be done by the time we leave the White House. So we’re going to be thinking hard about ways that I can use my next platform as a way to keep shining a light on the things that we’re doing. If there’s one word that I could say about what we do in the future, it’s “more.” It’s more of this. It’s finding more partners. It’s getting more schools to bring salad bars into their schools. It’s encouraging more communities to plant gardens. It’s including more of big industry to find ways to change or improve their products to meet these new demands. It’s getting more athletes to sign up and speak out to encourage kids to eat differently and to train differently. So it’s more.

Because I think what we’re doing now is hitting a lot of the important pieces, but we’ve just got to keep lifting it up higher and higher. We can’t let this movement rest. We’re at an important peak right now. And a lot of people are listening. So we have to maximize that momentum and keep the pressure on so that we’re constantly moving toward a healthier nation.

We owe it to our kids. They deserve the best that we can offer them. And when we know better, they do better. So our work isn’t done.