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Michelle Obama urges parents to join anti-obesity fight

First lady Michelle Obama speaks to community leaders

First lady Michelle Obama speaks to community leaders and high school students at Edward A. Reynolds West Side High School on Feb. 5, 2015 in Manhattan. Credit: Getty Images / Andrew Burton

First lady Michelle Obama came to New York Thursday to once again beseech parents to "dive into" the fight against childhood obesity -- and there are three specific ways every Long Island parent of a young child can help in that battle.

Obama spoke at the announcement of a $500 million contribution to the anti-obesity cause by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation at the Edward A. Reynolds West Side High School in Manhattan. As part of that effort, the foundation named three strategies individual families can embrace: Eliminate all sugar-sweetened beverages from the diets of children younger than 5, engage kids in physical activity every day and ensure that all children enter kindergarten at a healthy weight.

"I want to challenge you and folks across the country to make an RWJF kind of commitment at your own scale," Obama said. "I want you to really dive into this issue in your schools, your organizations, community, your company, your family, wherever you are a leader and decision-maker. Dive in. If Robert Wood Johnson can invest half a billion dollars . . . surely we can push the envelope and aim just a little higher in our own efforts."

Obama called parents who make healthier choices at the supermarket "unsung heroes."

"Nationwide childhood obesity rates have finally stopped rising," she said, and in some age groups, even declined. But she told the several hundred audience members representing partner organizations that the progress is "fragile" and said the nation can't afford to become "complacent for one single minute."

Obama does her part through her 5-year-old "Let's Move!" initiative, which encourages exercise.

The nation's changed attitudes toward smoking and increased awareness of the importance of seat belt use in cars is proof that society can change habits and embrace a culture of health, said Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president and chief executive of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a national health philanthropy based in New Jersey.

The foundation's new $500 million contribution follows up on a $500 million contribution made in 2007, bringing the foundation's total donation to the effort to $1 billion. "The magnitude of that just takes your breath away," Obama said.

The money will be distributed during the next 10 years nationwide to partner groups fighting childhood obesity. In addition to the three goals parents can help achieve, the foundation also aims to make school environments healthier and increase the availability of healthful foods in underserved neighborhoods. The foundation will especially focus efforts on children of color and on children living in poverty, Lavizzo-Mourey said.

Obama said progress since 2007 has included fast-food restaurants including apples and skim milk in its kids' meals, improved labeling to help parents choose healthier products in supermarkets and higher standards for school lunches. "We've seen the progress we can make," the first lady said, "when we educate parents and we help them make healthier decisions."

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