First lady tours Miss. schools to tout health

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 4, 2010

JACKSON (AP) — First lady Michelle Obama visited Jackson on Wednesday and watched children play on swings and a jungle gym at a school whose programs have been lauded for fighting obesity by keeping kids active.

It was the first of her two stops in Mississippi, which ranks No. 1 in childhood and adult obesity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The first lady’s visit was part of her recently announced Let’s Move! campaign to promote healthy habits at schools.

Maggie Benson White, who was putting up a poster outside Pecan Park Elementary School to welcome Mrs. Obama, said she hoped that the first lady’s visit would inspire healthy eating habits in her community and at inner-city schools.

‘‘Our children are not eating properly. We have a lot of parents who don’t know how to serve nutritious meals. If we could teach them to let McDonald’s go, it would have a big impact,’’ said White, who is president of the West Park Neighborhood Association, where Pecan Park Elementary is located.

The first lady’s campaign on obesity has four parts: helping parents make better food choices, serving healthier food in school vending machines and lunch lines, making healthy food more available and affordable and encouraging children to exercise more.

Obama said she realized it’s hard for some schools across the country to make such changes immediately because budgets are tight. She said the Child Nutrition Act that is up for reauthorization includes $10 billion over 10 years to help with those issues.

Later at Brinkley Middle School, she got a rock star reception as about 1,000 people, including hundreds of students cheered loudly when she was announced at a rally.

‘‘I picked this state because of all the creative things that are happening here to fix things,’’ Mrs. Obama said.

The Mississippi Department of Education has started several programs to increase physical activity at schools, boost the consumption of fruit and vegetables in lunchrooms and reduce fried foods on school menus.

Mrs. Obama praised Gov. Haley Barbour and his wife, Marsha, for leading the state’s ‘‘Let’s Go Walking’’ campaign, which encourages residents to exercise regularly. She also cited the north Mississippi city of Hernando for its efforts to build more sidewalks and encourage more farmers’ markets.

‘‘We all know too many kids in this country don’t get enough exercise and they aren’t as healthy as they need to be,’’ she said. ‘‘Here in Mississippi, some kids struggle with this issue sometimes even more than in other parts of this country.’’

The CDC has long said that nearly a third of Americans are obese. In 2009, Mississippi had the highest rate of adult obesity, 32.5 percent, for the fifth year in a row.

Mississippi also had the highest rate of overweight and obese children, at 44.4 percent in total, according to the CDC. It’s followed by Arkansas, 37.5 percent; and Georgia, 37.3 percent.