With a Food-Justice Advocate at Its Helm, Let’s Move! Is Ready for a Fight

Experts believe Deb Eschmeyer brings political skill and an activist spirit to Michelle Obama’s health and nutrition initiative.

Deb Eschmeyer. (Photo: Facebook)

Jan 9, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

Every year, the Ohio-based nonprofit FoodCorps connects hundreds of volunteer service members with opportunities to improve childhood nutrition with schools and community organizations across the country. The organization, which was modeled after the successful Peace Corps and Americorps programs, has focused primarily on transforming the way kids eat in schools through nutrition and cooking lessons, the planting of gardens, and advocacy around which foods appear on kids’ lunch trays.

In 2010, its cofounder, Debra Eschmeyer, a fifth-generation Ohio farmer, told Civil Eats, “the main reason I do this work is to make safe, healthy, delicious food available to everyone.”

Yesterday, Eschmeyer was appointed to a new post where she truly has to opportunity to reach everyone with her mission: She’ll be replacing Sam Kass as the executive director of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign and senior policy adviser on nutrition to the President.

Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at NYU—and a frequent Let’s Move! critic—used words including “brilliant” and “fantastic” to describe yesterday’s appointment. “It sort of blew me away when I heard about it,” she said in an interview, adding that Eschmeyer is a “phenomenon.”

She says Eschmeyer’s hiring indicates a return by the first lady’s campaign to its core focus: reforming the foods that children eat.

At her campaign’s outset, Obama was bullish in calling out junk-food makers and their marketing tactics directed at kids, telling the Grocery Manufacturers Association in 2010 to “entirely rethink the products that you’re offering—the information that you provide about these products, and how you market those products to our children.”

Then, in late 2011, Obama announced that Let’s Move! would shift its focus from childhood diet-related advocacy to physical activity, citing “good progress” in making food companies improve their product offerings. But Nestle and others saw the campaign’s shift as bowing to big food over politically contentious reforms that would hurt corporations’ bottom lines—and ultimately as a loss “in the fight against childhood obesity.” Nestle says she and other critics were “slapped down” by White House officials for their responses to the shift, and Kass even called Nestle the day after a particularly critical blog post, contending that physical activity was always a focus of Let’s Move! and assuring her that food reform would remain a tenet of the organization.

But a 2012 Reuters report told a different story, laying out the case that the White House that had indeed withered in the face of strong food industry lobbying and had effectively gone “soft” on childhood obesity. Big food, Reuters reported, not only managed to quiet the first lady’s critiques of its tactics in an election year but influenced the shift away from diet advocacy at Let’s Move!, and even got Congress to approve pizza as a vegetable to shield itself from a nutritional overhaul of school meals. Even today, a Republican-led Congress threatens to dismantle a landmark 2010 school food law, which was championed by the first lady, by slowly stripping out key provisions. Late in 2014, Congress passed a budget appropriations bill that included provisions waiving restrictions on the amount of sodium and grains school cafeterias can serve and giving some schools a complete exemption from the reforms.

But with Eschmeyer at the helm, Nestle believes Let’s Move! will be able to “resist Congress’s attempts to undermine the school food rules.” She hopes Eschmeyer is also able to shepherd the implementation of the Food and Drug Administration’s new calorie labeling requirements for restaurants and convenience stores, ensure that sustainability is included in new federal dietary guidelines, and possibly even take on food companies’ marketing to children—though she admits the latter is a tall order given the political shift in Congress.

Considering that the White House has not shied away from bold action since the midterm elections—be it with Cuba, immigration, or the climate deal with China—Nestle thinks we could be in for an “interesting couple of years” in regard to food policy.

And in these lame-duck years, the Obamas will be well prepared to face the political contention around food and nutrition that Nestle believes the first lady was not fully prepared for when she founded Let’s Move!

“My sense of it was that at the beginning they must have thought childhood obesity would be something everyone could get behind,” Nestle says. “Who could possibly be against having healthy children?”