First Lady touts her healthy kid program at Miami event

First lady Michelle Obama, campaigning in South Florida Tuesday for her “Let’s Move!” healthy kids program, unveiled a widespread expansion of after-school exercise and snack programs.

Her late-afternoon visit to Miami-Dade County’s Gwen Cherry Park followed announcements in Washington, D.C., that the federal government wants to ban advertising of junk food and soft drinks in schools and expand free lunches to millions more students.

“That’s not just good for kids. It’s also good for parents. They’ll know all their hard work isn’t being undermined every time [their kids] head off to school,” Obama told a small crowd at the Gladeview park’s recreation center.

The announcements rolled out Tuesday as the first lady celebrated the fourth anniversary of her health and fitness campaign, which began in 2010 amid a national obesity epidemic. Through the Let’s Move initiative and the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the Obama administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture have pushed for healthier school menus and expanded exercise programs.

Most recently, the administration announced the elimination of sugary, fatty foods in vending machines and lunch line a la carte items starting in July. The proposed advertising ban, which is backed by the beverage industry, is an extension of the health food push.

In her Miami stop — during which she danced a Zumba routine with Miami Heat executive Alonzo Mourning and a group of kids — Obama celebrated what she said are the successes of her program, which has been adopted in every Miami-Dade public school. When the first lady began her campaign, she aimed to reduce childhood obesity rates that had tripled during the past 30 years to the point that one in three children and adolescents was overweight or obese.

Fast forward to Tuesday, when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study showing the prevalence of obesity among U.S. children fell to 8.1 percent from 14 percent a decade ago.

“That’s the lowest rate we’ve seen in a very long time, so we’re beginning to make some real progress,” said Obama. “And none of this happened by accident.”

Obama credited Miami-Dade County and the school district for expanding fitness trails, adding sports like kayaking and canoeing, stocking vending machines with healthy snacks and creating community gardens.

But she wants to push healthy initiatives further.

Under the advertising proposals she announced Tuesday in Washington alongside Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the promotion of sugary drinks and junk foods would be phased out around campuses during the day. Gym score boards, cups, food menus and vending machines on school grounds, for instance, could no longer bear the images of M&Ms or colas. A Dasani water bottle or Diet Pepsi, however, would still be acceptable.

That could potentially bring tough decisions for some school districts around the state. But Penny Parham, the head of Miami-Dade Schools’ department of food and nutrition, said the district had already instituted policies requiring healthy vending and lunch line foods, and did not believe there were many, if any, advertisements in schools reflecting banned foods.

“You’re not going to find a vending machine that has a big soda advertised on the side of it,” she said.

Perhaps more significant to Miami-Dade and Broward schools is the first lady’s announcement that the federal government is expanding free lunches to an extra 9 million students in 22,000 schools across the country.

Together, the two districts serve a combined 364,000 students whose household income is low enough to qualify for subsidized meals. Both serve snacks and “supper” after school and offer a universal free breakfast program. Broward County alone spends $84 million on lunch and breakfast. Under the proposal, all students at qualifying schools would get free lunches.

The White House did not say which schools or regions would benefit, but Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said after hobnobbing with Michelle Obama that he hoped to find out more when he visits Washington, D.C., this week.

Robert Runcie, his Broward counterpart, said expanded free meals would be a great service — though he noted that kids aren’t always gung-ho about the healthier menu.

“There are students who come to school, with the only meal that they can count on is what they receive from school,” Runcie said.

Following Tuesday’s announcements in the capital, Obama brought representatives of the Boys and Girls Clubs and the National Recreation and Park Association along with her to Miami-Dade to announce an expansion of after school snacks and exercise programs.

The two organizations said they are teaming up to expand healthy snacks and half-hour exercise programs in 5,400 after-school venues around the country, though they could not say which locations in South Florida would be included.

“We have revamped our school meal program so soon millions more kids will be starting their day with a healthy meal,” Obama said, following an introduction from comedian and faux parks employee Amy Poehler. “Then they’ll get a meal at lunch with more fruits vegetables and grains. Then they’ll be getting active through the school days. Then, when school is out, they’ll head to an after-school program like this one and get more nutritious food and have more opportunities for moving.”

She added: “What you all are doing here in Miami is a perfect example of this kind of work.”

Miami Herald staff writer Michael Vasquez contributed to this report, which was also supplemented with information from The Associated Press.