Children's health counts as policy activism [Commentary]

Relieved by Michelle Obama's recent foray into higher education policy, Politico Magazine last month dubbed her soft focus first ladyship up to that point a "feminist nightmare." On the surface, there may be something to this claim. For example, Mrs. Obama's Let's Move website currently features her gardening with school children and cooking with Elmo from Sesame Street.

But feminists are wrong to say that Michelle Obama has not been active in policy. Just because her policy activism has more to do with children — and less to do with abortion rights and birth control access and paycheck fairness — does not mean she has been a retro throwback to the Mamie Eisenhower era.


In fact, when I teach courses on public policy, I regularly use Michelle Obama as a case study to highlight important aspects of the policy making process.

Take the First Lady's food politics, since she's most well known for her campaign to get Americans, especially children, to eat healthier.


The first step in policy analysis is to identify and measure the problem. Michelle Obama has done this.

Few question her assertion, backed by loads of government data, that childhood obesity is a serious problem in the United States, where nearly one in three children is obese and 40 percent of Hispanic and African-American children are. These children will inevitably become a grave burden on a health care system that is already overburdened by citizens' unhealthy lifestyle choices.

The next step in the policy process is to state a goal or an objective related to the problem. Michelle Obama has done this.

Her often-repeated, ambitious policy goal is to solve the problem of childhood obesity within a generation.

One of the final steps in the policy process is to design and implement a program using a set of policy tools. Michelle Obama has also done this.

As part of her Let's Move campaign, the First Lady has set out to solve the problem of food deserts. These are urban and rural "nutritional wastelands" where residents do not have access to a market that carries fresh and healthy eating options. The First Lady has used the policy tools of public education and government subsidies to help solve this problem.

And it is also not true that Michelle Obama has managed to avoid controversy. Her policy actions are inherently ideological. Backed by the presidential seal, she is essentially telling Americans what to put into their kids' lunch boxes and onto their dinner plates. This kitchen-level intrusion flies in the face of the free market.

While Michelle Obama does enjoy higher approval than her husband — particularly of late — so have all first ladies, even Hillary Clinton. But consistent with the ideological fissures in the overall population, a recent survey by Pew Research Center found that 31 percent of Americans, including 68 percent of tea party identifiers, have an unfavorable opinion of her.


How far she delves into the policy making process with her latest foray into higher education is yet to be determined.

But it is time for feminists to take another look at Michelle Obama. Her policy efforts should not be dismissed because they involve children, for she realizes what many feminists may not. To quote Mrs. Obama, "the physical and emotional health of an entire generation and the economic health and security of our nation is at stake."

Excuse the policy lingo, but if this isn't a positive externality, I don't know what is.

Jill Hummer is associate professor of political science and chair of the Department of History and Political Science at Wilson College in Chambersburg, Penn. Her email is

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