American Grown: Michelle Obama’s New Book

Yesterday, Crown Publishers (a Random House imprint) announced their newest title,  American Grown: How the White House Kitchen Garden Inspires Families, Schools, and Communities by First Lady Michelle Obama. The book will be on sale nationwide on April 10, 2012.

This book is Mrs. Obama’s first,  and her goal is to use the story of the White House kitchen garden. She will continue her quest for Americans to understand how increased access to healthy, affordable food can promote better eating habits and improve health of families and communities across America.

I applaud FLOTUS’ efforts at changing the dialogue and through it, the culture, around food and sustainability in the US. I think her efforts to talk about food deserts (low-income urban and rural areas that lack stores that sell fresh fruits and vegetables) is drawing important attention to these communities and access to healthy and fresh food. It brings a class consciousness to the issue of community health, something that is often lacking if we apply the same tired “bootstraps” analysis to health.

Once, when I was doing a training on health care reform in Alabama, a young woman student could not believe that we needed a policy and advocacy focus on community health especially in regards to low income urban communities, where health outcomes are so disproportionately bad. She asked, “Well, why can’t people just exercise? It’s not that hard, I run outside. They could do that, I don’t think we need a budget for community health centers in the health reform law.” That’s a fairly accurate paraphrasing, and you get the gist. Her argument was that it’s the fault of low income folks for their own poor health. It’s a lifestyle choice, she claimed. And that’s the argument echoed all over the country from folks who think that health is something that has nothing to so with social factors. Sheesh.

I think that the First Lady’s work goes a long way to challenging this kind of myopic thinking. And I think we could push the conversation even further. How about adding a few things to the mix? For example, toxic environments that cause health problems in low income communities, the fact that produce is so expensive and that processed food is so cheap, that there are fewer safe spaces in low income urban areas like parks, and rec centers. The point I’m making is this: awareness is great and it moves the national conversation about health and well-being, but what we need are policy changes at the federal, state and local level. So let’s get some bills on the books, shall we? Our very lives are at stake here.

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5 Comments

  1. Posted October 26, 2011 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    I completely agree with this post.
    I am, however, a bit confused on the topic of, “toxic environments that cause health problems in low income communities.” I’m not sure if you mean that low income communities tend to be located near nuclear power plants or you’re referring to the lack of sanitation within low income communities (Would you mind specifying, please?). On Monday I had a guest speaker who volunteers at clinics down in “Skid-row” (poverty and homeless areas) who went on to talk about how there a connotation that healthy food is too expensive. Processed food isn’t necessarily cheaper, but it is harder to shop for and harder to store (the poverty stricken often can’t afford refrigerators). On top of that they often are educated enough about healthy living and diet. I agree that “…awareness is great and it moves the national conversation about health and well-being, but what we need are policy changes at the federal, state and local level.” Awareness (like this book) is the first step in creating laws and changes to our various forms of government. Thank you for a great post and I look forward to reading this book!

    Brenna McNabb

  2. Posted October 26, 2011 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    “Well, why can’t people just exercise? It’s not that hard, I run outside.”

    I strongly suggest that woman goes running in a low-income urban neighborhood sometime. One of those neighborhoods that she wouldn’t dream of driving through during the day, let alone at night. Then she can go shopping at the local grocery store.

    I can’t think of any way to make her experience the asthma and other respiratory illnesses that disproportionately afflict poor kids, though.

  3. Posted October 26, 2011 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    But I can at least understand the mentality of the Alabama woman, even if I don’t agree with it. When there hasn’t been any tradition of a more holistic approach towards food and health, it seems unnecessary. Attaining food has become a relatively simple means to an end. Without the whole picture, the effort seems unnecessary or wasted energy.

    For now, there’s always going to be an aspect of privilege, no matter how well meaning attached to initiatives like these. Doesn’t mean that they aren’t healthy and that they shouldn’t be adopted, but that there may always be some suspicion of an expert from Washington, DC, who flies down to say, Dallas County, Alabama. This is not to discourage the venture, just to point out what can be potentially problematic.

  4. Posted October 26, 2011 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    I’m really disappointed to see a totally uncritical post of Michelle Obama’s program. Though this post avoids framing these issues in terms of “obesity” Michelle Obama does not. She focuses her food justice work around hatred and blame of fat people, specifically fat kids. Her work in schools furthers the shaming of bullying of fat children and fails to actually recognize that all kinds of bodies can be healthy if they have access to good food and movement.

  5. Posted October 26, 2011 at 11:13 pm | Permalink

    There are two issues at play here. The first is relatively easy– food. Food justice is a big deal, and a lot of Obama’s programs are doing a great job of bringing attention to the need for action to make sure that everyone has access to quality, sustainable food. Go team!

    The second issue is more complicated. It’s often referred to as “the obesity epidemic.” As a fat activist, I detest that term. I detest the idea that there is a right size and a right way for me– or anyone– to have a body. If you’re new to this idea, I’d suggest checking out Linda Bacon’s Healthy At Every Size book / paradigm. The basic idea is that all bodies can be “healthy”– eating well and exercising correlate to better health outcomes, regardless of body size. Meaning that when fat people eat well and exercise, they won’t get thin, but they will be healthy.

    The problem is that many people think that a food revolution which leads to enacted food justice will “solve the obesity epidemic.” This is not true. So when the goal of a program such as Mrs. Obama’s is to reduce obesity, her goal is not in line with the ideals of the food revolution and the realities of the lives of fat people. Notably that fat people can be healthy while still being fat.

    (If you’re new to fat activism, check out http://fatandtheivy.tumblr.com. I give a bit of an intro there, including other resources.)

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