Michelle Obama's War on Childhood Obesity Starts Now

First Lady Michelle Obama has launched a major initiative on childhood obesity, one of her signature topics. The carefully orchestrated rollout—Obama has been foreshadowing her plan for over a month now, speaking at a mayors' conference, a local YMCA, and elsewhere—includes a new nonprofit foundation and a range of approaches to tackle the problem.

The goal of what she’s calling Let’s Move:  “Solve the epidemic of childhood obesity within a generation.” It’s a tall order for a problem that’s grown dramatically. More than 12% of 2 to 5 year olds are obese, compared with 5% around 1980; for 6 to 11 year olds, the number has increased from just over 6%, to 17%.

Obama’s strategy seeks to expand on many approaches that have been tried before, often on a state or local level.

These include teaching doctors to monitor their young patients’ body mass index; boosting standards for food served in schools; encouraging kids to exercise more often (the recommended amount is 60 minutes a day); and making healthy food more accessible. Some of these methods are backed by additional funds, such as $400 million in the President’s 2011 budget, unveiled last week, to bring grocery stores and farmer’s markets to areas that don’t have them now.

While a number of studies have found that tackling just one cause of obesity—insufficient exercise, for example—often doesn’t help much, there’s some evidence that multi-pronged approaches can be more successful.One example is a pilot program targeting childhood obesity in African American children in Mississippi with eating and exercise.  Randomized trials of different behavioral weight loss strategies are underway, including one studying preschoolers in Australia.

An intriguing element of Obama’s plan is the Partnership For A Healthier America, a foundation announced today that’s supported by some big names in childhood obesity work, including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The foundation’s goals, posted on its Web site, are still vague: It aims to develop a membership network of groups, including businesses, academic institutions, and local governments who will act on Obama’s obesity plan.