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Michelle’s Machine

Churches get roped into the first lady’s obesity crusade.

Apr 11, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 29 • By MEGHAN CLYNE
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Sometimes the most important message of a speech is communicated by the atmospherics—timing, audience, venue. So it’s worth noting that, to mark the first anniversary of her Let’s Move! campaign against childhood obesity in February, First Lady Michelle Obama spoke not at a school or a kids’ recreational facility but at the North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Georgia. 

Michelle Obama

John Amis / AP

At first glance, celebrating with an evangelical Christian congregation might not be the obvious way to highlight the White House’s anti-obesity efforts. But the choice is part of a broader push by the Obama administration to get churches on board with the first lady’s health agenda. 

Working through the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and its satellites at various cabinet agencies, the administration launched the “Let’s Move Faith and Communities” initiative in November. Since then, the administration’s faith-based offices have been busily recruiting converts for the nutrition crusade. The executive director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, Joshua DuBois, has been a cheerleader for Let’s Move! on the office’s blog. The director of the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Max Finberg, has joined with John Kelly—the strategic adviser for faith-based and neighborhood partnerships at the Corporation for National and Community Service (a federal agency)—to launch the National Anti-Hunger and Opportunity Corps. The organization is sending new AmeriCorps volunteers to urban and rural areas across the country, where they will work with churches and community groups to sign people up for food stamps.

The centerpiece of the effort is the 52-page “Let’s Move! Toolkit for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Organizations,” published by the faith-based office at the Department of Health and Human Services. Much of what the toolkit recommends is innocuous—encouraging churches to host kids’ intramural sports leagues, for instance. But several sections illustrate the Obamas’ strange understanding of the role of religious communities in America and suggest how, under this president, faith-based offices at the White House and in the agencies have changed their mission and purview. 

Some of the proposals seem oddly detached from the actual priorities and challenges of religious congregations. Churches are given detailed instructions for starting community gardens (including the reminder that “It is not a community garden without a COMMUNITY!”). Congregations are encouraged to form “motivational groups” to help members with such activities as “using a shopping list” and to “teach others about preserving local food by organizing canning and preserving sessions.” Religious leaders are prodded to work with schools to “create a wellness club for teachers with volunteer instructors from the congregation” and to “help your local school install a salad bar in its cafeteria.” 

Most worrisome, though, are the administration’s efforts to have congregations place themselves in the service of government as recruiters for the welfare state. Congregations are told to “encourage eligible families to enroll their children in [government-subsidized] school meal programs”; if organizations operate day-care or after-school programs, they are advised to pursue reimbursement for meals and snacks through the Child and Adult Care Food Program (a federally funded, state-administered welfare program). Places of worship are asked to serve as feeding sites for the Summer Food Service Program—another federally funded, state-run welfare project. Sections on breastfeeding and supporting pregnant women and new mothers tell churches to “promote participation” in the Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).

The toolkit’s big sell is getting faith-based groups to spread the good news about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. When they sponsor a farmers’ market at their place of worship, congregations are told to “advocate for hosts to accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.” Churches are also encouraged to:

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