First Lady brings healthy eating push to Hispanic audience in New Orleans

For New Orleans, first lady Michelle Obama will make an exception.

“I eat a balanced diet and I work out every single day of the week,” she told a National Council of La Raza gathering at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center on Tuesday. “But let me tell you something, while I am here in New Orleans today ... Everyone understand? There is no way I am leaving this city without a good meal!”

She did not mention if that meal might include the catfish platter at Lil’ Dizzy’s Cafe or the fried shrimp at Domilise’s, but the thought more or less summed up the first lady’s message for the nation’s largest Latino advocacy group.

To get a handle on the country’s obesity problem, which affects the Hispanic community in the U.S. disproportionately, families will have to find a way to juggle healthy eating with cultural traditions and motherly instincts that celebrate fatty foods and big portions, Obama said.

“For so many of us, food is love,” Obama said, recalling weekends eating her grandfather’s barbecue ribs in Chicago’s South Side neighborhood. But she added, “The truth is that we are loving ourselves and our kids to death,” surrounded by modern fast food and microwave dinners and exercising less.

Obama’s appearance capped four days of conference workshops and speeches, giving the first lady an opportunity to combine her anti-obesity campaign with the Democratic party’s focus on courting Hispanic voters.

She opened by telling the crowd of several hundred in the Convention Center’s Great Hall to keep fighting on the debate over how to reform the country’s immigration laws. “I promise you that my husband will not give up until a good bill gets on his desk,” Obama said.

And she dovetailed her message on healthy living with a pitch for the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, telling her audience to go home after the conference and spread the message that people need to sign up for health insurance, especially young people — the “ones who always think they’re invincible.”

“They may roll their eyes for a moment,” she said, “But we know that when mama or abuela speak, they listen.” “Abuela” is Spanish for grandmother.

The first lady spoke for just over 20 minutes, outlining the depth of the health issues facing Latinos and the rest of the country, as well as calling on families and corporations alike to respond by making better choices.

Obama pointed out that Hispanic parents on surveys are five times more likely than white parents to say that safety concerns inhibit the amount of physical activity their children get, and that Hispanic children ages 9 to 13 are only half as likely to engage in organized physical activity outside of school.

“All these changes in how we live and eat are having a devastating effect on our children’s health,” she said, “Right now nearly 40 percent of Hispanic children in this country are overweight or obese. Nearly 50 percent are on track to develop diabetes.”

Obama put the blame in part on the way that food companies market unhealthy products to children — “we all know how persuasive these ads can be,” she said — but also laid the imperative on families to make better decisions.

“When companies step up and provide healthy choices, we all need to step up and actually take advantage of those choices,” she said. “Because let me tell you, Goya can produce a low-sodium product, but if we don’t buy it, they will stop selling them.”