Do Churches Have a Role to Play in Fighting Obesity?

Long before First Lady Michelle Obama began advocating the Let’s Move anti-obesity campaign, Rev. Michael O. Minor, pastor of Oak Hill Baptist Church in the Mississippi Delta, was convincing his congregation and others in the seven million member National Baptist Convention that churches have a role to play in helping congregants develop healthful living habits. The convention aims to have a “health ambassador” in every one of its churches by September 2012, The New York Times reported yesterday.

Minor has been at this for about 11 years, and tells other pastors that “sick members can’t tithe.” At his church and others in the convention, fried foods are banned, greens are boiled with turkey necks instead of ham hocks, and bottled water has replaced sugary drinks, the article said. Oak Hill also organizing group walks on a track it built around the church.

Is Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Campaign Appropriate or Insidious?

“Michelle Obama’s major initiative during her husband’s presidency has been the Let’s Move campaign, which aims to end childhood obesity within a generation by encouraging healthier eating and activity “during their earliest months and years. While well-intentioned to be sure, something about it strikes me as insidious,” wrote Caryn Rivadeneira earlier this month at Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics blog.

“Perhaps because even as Let’s Move seeks to ‘raise a generation of healthier kids,’ it’s a government program that targets kids: namely, fat ones. As the message of Let’s Move and other programs like it has trickled down through layers of government bureaucracy into U.S.schools and schoolyards, the dangerous sides of its do-gooder message seep into our homes. It creates problems where there were once none,” said Rivadeneira.

Unfair BackLash?

“Former First Ladies Barbara and Laura Bush worked to end illiteracy. Nancy Reagan famously took on teenage drug use. Lady Bird Johnson planted flowers. But none of them have been seared for something as seemingly benign as calling for kids to eat more vegetables, as Michelle Obama has,” the Los Angeles Times reported in February on the first anniversary of Let’s Move.

“Just about everyone will agree that the nation’s children are getting fatter and that obesity is a serious health problem. But the first lady’s push for healthier meals and more exercise … has provoked a backlash from the right, who complain that the only thing here that’s supersized is Big Brother,” the article said.

Persuasion, Not Legislation

“Mrs. Obama has no legislated power. She only has the power of leadership and persuasion. I’m glad she’s using it to promote action on childhood obesity, challenging as that is,” wrote Marion Nestle, professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, at The Atlantic in February. Nestle said the initiative “had brought childhood obesity to public attention, as never before,” that “fixing school food and getting supermarkets into inner city food deserts makes excellent sense,” and “encouraging the makers of packaged foods to reduce salt and sugar and to stop blatant marketing to kids brings attention to their worst practices.”

Do Church and State Have a Role to Play?

What do you think? Do pastors and presidents’ wives have a role to play in persuading people to adopt healthier habits or are these leaders treading where only health professionals should go?

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