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Many first ladies choose a mission, and when Michelle Obama moved into the White House, she decided to take up the cause of combating childhood obesity. It's an epidemic that affects up to one-third of all children in the U.S. It's also a personal issue for the first lady. A number of years ago, her pediatrician asked her to rethink her daughters' diets.
In February 2010, she launched the Let's Move! initiative, to encourage more healthful lifestyles and push for better-quality food in schools and neighborhoods. She also cultivates the White House vegetable garden, which provides fresh produce for formal lunches, state dinners and Obama family meals. Critics complain Obama's anti-obesity campaign represents the long reach of an overbearing government; supporters applaud her for focusing attention on the issue.
NPR's Neal Conan talks with first lady Michelle Obama about ways to get children to eat more healthfully and her new book, American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America.
On how she changed her family's eating habits
"The hard part was trying to get the kids excited about a new diet. I mean, you know, one of the challenges that we face as moms is that today's foods are so high in sodium and sugar in an artificial way that kids' taste buds are really adjusted for that high level of sugar and salt. So when you go back to natural foods, things that aren't processed, it takes them time to adjust. ...
"But once we got them involved in the process of clearing out the cabinets, and we explained what was going on, and we spent time with them in farmer's markets, slowly but surely we started to introduce real food to their diets: fresh vegetables, which tend to taste more tasty for kids; fresh juices, which they got adjusted to.
"And slowly they began to embrace it, and that's where the whole notion of planting a garden came from, because I found that in my own kids, when they were involved in the process of growing and harvesting their own food, and they were engaged, they actually embraced the idea. And I thought, well, if I didn't have this figured out with all my education and all my exposure, you know, there are probably other parents and families out there who needed help, as well."
On Let's Move! and helping all kids, not just athletes, be active
"We approach this concept by trying to make exercise what it used to be, which was play, and it was fun. Because truly not every kid is going to be an athlete. But when we were growing up, you didn't have to be because you were outside, and you were playing piggy, and you were jumping rope, and ... you were running around and you were playing chase, and you were playing the kind of games in your neighborhood that all kids could participate in, or else it wouldn't be fun.
"They weren't just for the athletes. But ... neighborhoods are changing. There are many communities where it's just not safe for kids to play outside, and parents know that. And you know, when you're worried about your child's safety, the first thing you want to do is just bring them close and keep them nearby.
"There are also communities where, you know, there are no sidewalks, there are no playgrounds nearby, and that's one of the reasons why we're working with leaders of cities and towns with Let's Move Cities and Towns, because it really is going to take a community."
On forcing change, or what critics call the 'nanny state'
"What I tell my kids is: All I can do is give you the information, all I can do is model those choices, and all I can do is help you understand the consequences of your choices. And then I've got to be with you as you make those choices and give you some feedback. But in the end, even at 11 and 14, I'd tell my girls this isn't about who they are today. It's about who they're going to be when they go to college. What kind of parents are they going to be, what kind of tools and information they're going to have to feed their own kids?
"And if they don't learn this stuff now, you know, they're going to be dealing with these issues as adults. So we do a lot of talking and a little less sort of telling because, you know, it doesn't work for any kid, you know? That's why 'nanny state' doesn't work because nobody wants to be told what to do. ... At some point when we know what we need to do and we know what the right thing is to do, particularly when it comes to our health and the health of our nation, we've got to start talking and we've got to start listening. And, you know, it starts with our kids."
Recipe: Chef Sam Kass' Corn Soup With Summer Vegetables
Serves 4 to 6
This versatile soup is the essence of summer. Dairy free and nearly fat free, it showcases the pure, sweet taste of summer corn and can be served hot or at room temperature. A garnish of summer vegetables, grilled and cut into bite-size pieces, makes this soup your own unique creation. Try zucchini or summer squash, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers or mushrooms, alone or in combination.
If you leave out the corn kernels and don't thin the soup with the corn stock, this becomes a luxurious sauce for seafood like halibut, tilapia or shrimp.
-- Chef Sam
4 to 6 ears of fresh corn, shucked and silk removed
2 sprigs fresh thyme
Juice of 1/2 lemon (about 1 tablespoon)
Grilled vegetables of your choice: zucchini, summer squash, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, mushrooms
1. Cut the corn off the cobs and set aside.
2. Place the cobs in a large pot and just barely cover with water. Bring to a boil; then lower the heat and simmer for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until the stock has a rich corn flavor. Strain the stock and set aside.
3. Reserve 3/4 cup of the corn kernels and place the remaining corn in a blender. Blend, starting on low speed and increasing the speed as the corn purees. You can add a little of the corn stock to get the corn started. Blend on high for 45 seconds to a minute.
4. Pour the pureed corn into a medium saucepan through a fine-mesh strainer to remove the bits of skin. Add the thyme and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently. You do not want the soup to boil. As the soup heats, the natural starch will begin to thicken the soup. Once the soup has thickened, add the lemon juice and the reserved corn stock little by little until the soup reaches the desired thickness. You should have 4 to 6 cups of soup. Add salt to taste.
5. Heat a small frying pan over medium heat; add enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan. When the oil begins to smoke, add the reserved corn kernels and do not stir until the corn has a nice brown color. Stir the corn and then remove it from the heat. Add the seared corn and any other grilled vegetable of your choice on top of the soup and serve.
Recipe: Chef Cris Comerford's Spinach Pie
Serves 6 to 8
Fresh spinach takes a starring role in this satisfying, savory pie. Perfect for a busy family, it can be made in advance and served hot, cold, or at room temperature. Try it for lunch, brunch, or dinner, served with a light green salad and fruit for dessert. I like to put a dollop of Greek yogurt on my portion for extra tartness.
You can use whole or 2 percent milk instead of half-and-half if you prefer.
-- Chef Cris
1 9-inch unbaked pie crust
2 tablespoons olive oil
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 small onion, chopped
1 pound fresh spinach, well washed and drained
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 large eggs, beaten
1 cup half-and-half
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
6 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
8 ounces Swiss cheese, grated
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Place the pie crust on a rimmed baking sheet lined with foil or parchment paper.
2. In a medium skillet over medium heat, drizzle in the olive oil. Add the garlic and onion and saute until translucent, 5 to 7 minutes. Do not let the garlic burn. Add the spinach, a little at a time, and cook until wilted. Season with salt and pepper and set aside to cool.
3. In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs and half-and-half. Add the lemon zest and thyme. Add the spinach, the feta cheese and half the Swiss cheese and mix until well combined. Season with salt and pepper.
4. Pour the mixture carefully into the pie crust and sprinkle the remaining Swiss cheese evenly over the top.
5. Bake for about 40 minutes, or until the center is set. Cool for at least 10 minutes before serving.
From American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America by Michelle Obama. Copyright 2012 by the National Park Foundation. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House Inc.