Girl on scaleMichelle Obama’s anti-obesity initiative, Let’s Move, has kicked into high gear. The Presidential Task Force on Childhood Obesity released a landmark report documenting the scale of the problem, complete with a list of 70 recommendations and a set of benchmarks, including the goal of returning the childhood obesity rate to its 1972 level of 5% by 2030. And this week came the announcement that a new industry partnership called the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, which includes most of the major food companies, agreed to reduce the number of calories in its members’ products by 1.5 trillion calories by 2015.

It would be churlish of me to downplay the significance of either the report or the industry announcement. As nutritionist Marion Nestle observed, whatever skepticism one may rightly have regarding industry self-regulation, the fact that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation — whose public health credentials in general and anti-obesity efforts in particular are beyond reproach — will be auditing the calorie-cutting plan should keep industry shenanigans to a minimum.

But what will a 1.5-trillion calorie cut look like? In an article that helpfully explains how companies might go about reaching their goal — lower-calorie Lunchables! Smaller Kraft Cheese slices! — former food industry executive Hank Cardello puts the cuts into context:

…[T]his is a drop in the bucket and represents only a 0.5 percent reduction in the 300 trillion calories available for Americans to consume each year. That translates to less than 1.5 pounds of added weight per person. Hardly enough to resolve an obesity crisis.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

That context was left of out of the comments by David Mackay, chair of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, at the White House announcement. But he did express his deep pleasure that the concept of “calories in/calories out” is a foundational concept of the White House childhood obesity initiative.

“Calories in/calories out” refers to the idea that balancing consumption with exercise is the key to maintaining a healthy weight. It also happens to be the industry mantra, since it mostly leaves industry off the hook. It becomes an individual’s responsibility to count calories and get enough exercise. Industry can offer a helping hand with programs like this one, but on the whole can be left to its own devices.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

And certainly, industry desperate wants to be left along. As Kelly Brownell, head of the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity said to the Washington Post‘s Jane Black: “My guess is that they were going to do this anyway… The hidden motive here is to convince government to back off and not regulate the industry.”

The question then becomes if these impressive-sounding but small-bore industry initiatives will make up for an apparent lack of political will from the Obama administration to force government to do its part. The Task Force report is full of things the government should do, but has only a handful of things it will do.

Meanwhile, one of the core commitments the Obama administration has made to address obesity — through the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, aka the National School Lunch Program — is stuck in congressional limbo. The bill, already disappointing in its minimal increases in funding, appears stalled at least until after the 2010 midterm elections.

Indeed, I’d feel better about the administration’s supposed laser-like focus on the National School Lunch Program — already overdue for reauthorization and operating under an extension of the current version, with all its flaws — if it showed a little more engagement with the current congressional bottleneck. I suspect, however, that with the coming of the political season surrounding the midterm elections, even a public health crisis on the scale of the obesity epidemic must take a back seat to more pressing concerns.

In essence, the task force’s report — with its laundry list of recommendations and benchmarks, most of which don’t start until 2015 and don’t end until 2030 — feels less like the roadmap its reputed to be and more like a poorly written recipe. The ingredients are excellent, and there’s a beautiful picture of what the final dish will look like, but the step-by-step instructions are missing. We don’t know the order or even the precise amounts of each ingredient. We do know there’s a great dish in there somewhere, but we don’t know how to make it.

Now, it’s clearly unreasonable to expect the task force to have created a precise recipe to fix a social problem on this scale. But of the dozen or so recommendations that were identified as the government’s responsibilities, which will the Obama administration enact? Where was the call from the President for all federal agencies mentioned in the report to draw up a specific action plan in response to the recommendations?

We’re just not going to meet these benchmarks without government policy playing a significant role. Industry needs to be a partner, of course. But we are after all talking about the industry that gave us the now infamous Smart Choices label, with guidelines so slack that even Froot Loops could qualify. The same industry that tried to pass off sugar-sweetened Cocoa Krispies as immune boosting. The same industry that had the CEO of one of its most powerful companies refer to soda as a “staple food.” And the same industry that targets children with billions of dollars in advertising so that it can take advantage of the “nag factor” at the supermarket. It is, in short, not to be trusted.

Along those lines, I was not encouraged by a recent interview in Politico with Melody Barnes, the administration’s director of the Domestic Policy Council, and chief architect of Let’s Move. When Mike Allen asked what the government itself was going to do to address obesity in the wake of the task force’s report, Barnes gave a lengthy description of the administration’s efforts on the school lunch program and its Healthy Food Financing Initiative, which would fund grocery stores in so-called “food deserts.” Both predate the task force report. When Allen pressed on the subject, Barnes offered no other initiatives.

We have learned over the last decade and to our great chagrin that a change in administration can undo decades of good government. The more that Let’s Move relies on industry good behavior and bully pulpit exhortations from the White House as it tries to avoid writing policies into law that might change the underlying structural foundation of the obesity epidemic, the more likely we are to risk falling back to old patterns once our enthusiasm flags or — dare I say it — a Republican returns to the White House, which could happen well before the final obesity benchmark in 2030.

Drops in the bucket, even dozens of them, just won’t get the job done.

Cross-posted from