At the White House on Tuesday, US President Obama signed a Presidential Memorandum establishing a task force to address the nation’s growing childhood obesity epimedic, turned to his wife, First Lady Michelle Obama and said “it’s done honey”, and she replied “now we work”.

The Taking on Childhood Obesity task force is part of the First Lady’s Let’s Move campaign to bring together public and private sectors within a generation to help children become more active in their daily lives and have a healthier diet so that children born today reach adulthood at a healthy weight.

The task force has 90 days in which to prepare a plan and submit it to the President. The plan must detail a coordinated strategy, identify key benchmarks, and outline a plan of action.

The First Lady said this was a moment of truth for America and that over the last three decades the rates of childhood obesity in the US had tripled and current figures show that one in three American children is now overweight or obese.

Speaking at an event later, Michelle Obama said that the words “overweight” and “obese” don’t tell the full story:

“This isn’t just about inches and pounds or how our kids look. It’s about how our kids feel, and how they feel about themselves. It’s about the impact we’re seeing on every aspect of their lives,” she said.

President Obama said he felt proud of the work that the First Lady and the Cabinet Secretaries that had signed up to the plan are doing in trying to tackle childhood obesity, which he described as “one of the most urgent health issues that we face in this country”.

He complimented them on the “outstanding” planning they have already achieved and because of that and the anticipated roll out of the task force’s action plan he said the private sector and government agencies will be:

“Coordinating much more effectively a lot of public information out there to help parents make good decisions about allowing their children to be active and eating healthier.”

Michell Obama said the plan includes measures like getting the food industry and goverment agencies working to put clear labels on the fronts of food packages that show the nutritional value of the foods they contain. She said also that within two years soft drinks companies will be labelling bottles and cans so they show how many calories they contain. (The average soda contains 110 calories and many American children consume more than one a day).

Another part of the plan will tackle school meals, because this is where American kids consume half of their daily calories. Measures here will include reducing sugar, fat and salt content of school meals, while increasing the amount of fresh food and whole grains.

Later in the day, during an interview on “Larry King Live”, Michelle Obama spoke of her own personal experience of how a doctor gave her family a “wake up call”. She thought she was already doing everything she could to promote healthy lifestyles. But she said while her husband was campaigning, a pediatrician expressed concern about her daughters’ BMI (body mass index) and brought it to her attention.

“I was shocked at first because I thought I was doing what I was supposed to do, and I hadn’t noticed any changes in my kids, so it was a little bit shocking and a little disorienting,” she said on the program.

“But I went home, and it was kind of a wake-up call, and we made some changes even with busy schedules,” she added.

Michelle Obama described the changes as quite small but the point was that “small changes made a difference”. The changes included things like smaller portion sizes, more cooked meals, no desserts at weekends and replacing sugary drinks with water, milk and freshly squeezed juices.

Another important part of the plan is to eliminate what Michelle Obama describes as “food deserts” or neighbourhoods with limited access to affordable and healthy food. More than 23 million people in the US, including 6.5 million children, live more than a mile away from a supermarket.

The First Lady said the Let’s Move campaign has set itself the goal to completely eliminate food deserts in America in seven years.

“Let’s move to ensure all our families have access to healthy, affordable food in their communities,” she said.

— more info on Let’s Move campaign

Sources: CNN, White House.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD