WASHINGTON, D.C.—Saying childhood obesity has tripled in the last 30 years, first lady Michelle Obama asked the nation's mayors to help her battle an epidemic that could see today's kids lead shorter lives than their parents.
Obama, speaking before the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said no matter how much she'd read and thought about the problem of obesity among young people, the pertinent statistics "never fail to take my breath away."
overweight or obese. She said one-third of today's children eventually will suffer from diabetes, and, in the African American and Latino communities, the proportion will be almost half.
Obesity, she said, "could now be an even greater threat to America's health than smoking." And if the nation stays on its current path, nearly 50 percent of all Americans will be obese in 10 years - "not just overweight, but obese."
"This isn't the kind of problem that can be solved in one year, or even one administration," according to Obama, who is expected to unveil an anti-obesity initiative next month. "But make no mistake about it, this is a problem that can be solved."
Obama said a host of factors were contributing to the problem, from time-pressed parents with less time to prepare home-cooked meals to kids sitting for hours in front of televisions or playing video games.
She said as a busy working mom she turned too often to pizza or to a drive-through for food, until a nudge from her daughters' pediatrician, who suggested she modify their diets.
Obama heralded what mayors across the country already are doing to fight fat and promote fitness. She singled out Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, who challenged residents to lose a million pounds and created a Web site, thiscityisgoingonadiet.com, for people to track their progress and share tips.
"So far, 40,000 people have signed up - and together, they've lost more than half a million pounds," she said.
Forty of those pounds lost were Cornett's, she noted.
Obama said she understands that when he dines out now, everyone watches what he orders. "I can relate," she said to laughter.
Obama also noted that the Arlington, Texas, mayor, who is a physician, gave children pedometers at the end of the school year; in Columbia, Mo., the mayor is building walkways and bikeways; in Bowling Green, Ky., the mayor launched a Web site to encourage exercise, find parks and trail maps and learn about upcoming races; and in Minneapolis, the mayor brought in farmers' markets to bring fresh produce to underserved areas.
Obama said she wants "ideas and input" from mayors -- and their leadership. "We're looking to you to be the leaders on the frontlines of this effort across the country," she said.
She told them that when she tucks her girls into bed at night, she thinks about wanting them to happy and healthy and to "have every chance to follow their aspirations and ambitions."
She said she wants them to have the tools for success, not just "education and opportunities, but the physical and emotional strength to seize those opportunities."
"I want them to be able to engage in life with the energy, endurance, and focus," she said, "because we all know they're going need it to meet the challenges they'll face along the way."
She added: "And I want them to have the blessing that my husband and I have, and that my mother has, of being there to see their own children and grandchildren grown up-and, God willing, their great grandchildren too."
Obama said what she wanted for her daughters she wants "for every single child in this country."
The conference, meeting in the Capital Hilton, runs through Friday.
Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, for whom Obama once worked, is among about 220 mayors attending the conference.
Daley praised the speech as "very good," and said cities are talking about the issues Obama raised, including increasing access to quality foods and grocery stores and promoting exercise.
And he said, in answer to a question, that he thinks mayors will heed Obama's call to get involved in the fight since "it's an issue that strikes all families."