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The First Lady of Food: Michelle Obama

To trace the origin of Let’s Move!, the first lady’s program to end childhood obesity within a generation, you have to go back several years before the Obama presidency, back to a routine visit to the family’s Chicago pediatrician. That’s when Michelle Obama first learned that her daughters’ diets were out of whack. “I thought we had it all together,” Mrs. Obama told me recently, but the doctor said otherwise. Like many parents, Michelle and Barack Obama were working full time, and they relied too much on takeout and processed foods to feed Malia and Sasha. So Mrs. Obama took control, cooking two more meals a week—simple fare like baked chicken, couscous, and steamed broccoli—and eliminating prepackaged lunches and sugary canned juices.

“By the time we went back for the next visit, our pediatrician said, ‘What have you done? I haven’t seen these [body mass index] numbers change in such a short period of time in this way in a while,’ ” Mrs. Obama recalls.

I’ve come to Washington, D.C., to talk to her about her role as the most food-focused first lady ever, and it hits me within the first minute of our conversation how personally she takes her healthy food agenda.

“Look,” she says, hammering home her point, “if I didn’t figure this out, I’m sure there are millions of families and parents who are getting it wrong.”

Collectively, we’ve been getting it wrong for decades. Supersized portions, snacking overload, sugary drinks, and the replacement of home-cooked meals with restaurant fare and fast food—along with factors like stress, poverty, and sedentary lifestyles—have fueled our obesity epidemic. Since the launch of Let’s Move! five years ago, obesity rates have leveled off, with some noticeable decreases in certain states and age ranges, and Mrs. Obama’s team has rallied a complicated network of government agencies, churches, farmers, chefs, and athletes to address the issue in the classroom. The administration has also pushed through an aggressive reform agenda, updating Nutrition Facts labels on products and overhauling the school lunch program.

With daughter Malia in 2010.

Critics accuse her of running a nutritional nanny state—politics don’t belong at the dinner table any more than they do in the doctor’s office, the argument goes—and some students have railed against the new cafeteria fare by posting photos of their pizzas and burgers on social media with the hashtag #ThanksMichelleObama. The first lady remains unfazed. “The most powerful thing that [people] can do for their overall health is feed their bodies good nutritious food,” she says. “If you don’t like the doctor, if you don’t like the government, if you don’t like folks messing with your life, the best thing to do is make sure you’re healthy.”

Mrs. Obama’s relationship with good food started as a child on the South Side of Chicago. Her father, Fraser Robinson, sold produce off the back of a vegetable truck as a boy, and her mother, Marian Robinson, helped tend a family plot in a neighborhood World War II victory garden—experiences she cites, along with the small garden Eleanor Roosevelt had planted, as inspirations for the White House kitchen garden. Carved into the South Lawn in 2009, the garden was a touchstone of Let’s Move! It also heralded a national rise in backyard and community gardening and inspired White House chefs to craft healthier menus.

Harvesting carrots in the White House kitchen garden with elementary school students in 2009.

When Mrs. Obama was a child, her mom shopped on the family’s working- class budget. “She was famous for her lemon chicken,” Mrs. Obama says, “and that was a good Sunday dish,” as was roast beef that would go into sandwiches for lunch on Monday and Tuesday. Weeknights meant lasagna, the “unfortunate liver Wednesdays,” fish on Fridays, and the occasional pizza takeout. “There was a pattern to what we ate,” she says. “There were familiar flavors ... 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.”

The family has a bigger table at the White House now and chefs doing the cooking, “but the conversation and the mood and the tone are still the same. [Between 6:30 and 7 p.m.] is our most important time of the day,” she says.

With her own struggles as a young parent in mind, Mrs. Obama now aims to spark a national conversation about family dinner without making parents feel judged. “We have to be deliberate about [getting back to home cooking traditions],” she says. “It won’t happen by accident. People are busier today. Life is different ... but we have to find those new healthier norms.”

The Robinson family in the late 1960s: Fraser, Marian, Michelle, and Craig

Sam Kass, the chef and executive director of Let’s Move!, recently stepped down, and Mrs. Obama hired Deb Eschmeyer, a national leader on nutrition and agriculture, to fill his shoes. The move is seen by many as a doubling down on nutrition in the final years of the presidency.

Mrs. Obama will measure the success of Let’s Move!—and her legacy—against today’s generation of kindergartners; new healthy norms will mean that fresh vegetables, fruits, and whole grains will be second nature by the time they’re in college. By then she’ll be long gone from the White House, but she plans on maintaining a public life committed to raising a nation of healthier children. The food world will be watching.

Mrs. Obama shows students one way to stay active, 2011.

“Mrs. Obama’s leadership and presence from her office has been staggering,” says Andrew Zimmern, the Minnesota chef and TV food personality. “She legitimized the food movement for many and provided real goal setting. She didn’t just advocate for wellness in the food system; she walked the talk. How can we ever go back on Let’s Move? We can’t.”

Read Hunter’s full interview with the first lady. Portrait by Peggy Sirota