First lady all over TV with healthy eating message

November 12, 2009 in Uncategorized

NEW YORK — She’s hanging with Elmo and Emeril Lagasse, Big Bird and Bobby Flay.

Michelle Obama appeared on “Sesame Street” Tuesday and recently taped an episode of “Iron Chef America,” just two of the varied platforms she’s been using lately to get her healthy-eating message out to the masses.

And while the first lady herself didn’t appear on “The Biggest Loser” last week, her staff invited NBC’s popular weight-loss show into its kitchen and into Mrs. Obama’s famed White House Kitchen Garden.

First ladies have appeared on “Sesame Street” before. In fact, the show, which marks its 40th anniversary with Tuesday’s season opener, has also hosted Barbara Bush, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Laura Bush. But “Iron Chef” and “The Biggest Loser”?

“We’re trying to reach as many people as possible with the first lady’s message of healthy eating, and by working with platforms with similar goals like ‘Iron Chef,’ ‘The Biggest Loser’ and ‘Sesame Street’, we’re able to do just that,” Katie McCormick Lelyveld, Mrs. Obama’s spokeswoman, said in an e-mail message to The Associated Press.

While some of the venues may be untraditional, the strategy is actually quite traditional for a first lady, says Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

“If you’re trying to lay out a nonpolitical message, you go to nonpolitical media,” says Jurkowitz. And what’s more nonpolitical than a beloved children’s show, a popular food contest or a show about losing weight?

Not to mention the reach — “The Biggest Loser,” for example, is one of NBC’s most successful shows, averaging 9.6 million viewers weekly this season. “What’s different here is the ability to magnify the message,” Jurkowitz says.

“I think it’s very smart to do what they’re doing,” adds Ann Stock, former social secretary for the Clinton White House. “Think of all the different ways we get our information these days. If you want to educate people, you go to a variety of different venues, to nontraditional media. People aren’t using one media outlet anymore.”

In the nine months since she became first lady, Mrs. Obama has focused on several issues: She’s been a vocal advocate for veterans and military families, for example.

But perhaps her most visible cause has been her emphasis on healthy eating and fighting obesity, particularly in children. She delighted chefs across the country when she had her vegetable garden planted on the South Lawn, and she’s appeared there numerous times before the cameras. At a recent health fair nearby, she engaged in a hula-hooping session in which she reached an impressive 142 swivels.

No hula-hooping on Tuesday’s “Sesame Street,” but Mrs. Obama beams as she’s introduced by red, furry Elmo himself.

“We’re here digging up soil so we can plant a garden,” she says to Elmo and to the children helping her. “Veggies taste so good when they come from the garden, don’t they?”

Big Bird soon arrives. “You’re tall like me, maybe we’re from the same family,” he says. “Are you part bird?” “No, Big Bird, I’m not,” Mrs. Obama says. But she tells the children: “If you eat all these healthy foods you’re gonna grow up big and strong, just like me!”

“Sesame Street” reaches some 5 million viewers each week. Mrs. Obama may be the fourth first lady to appear, but “what made her appearance so special is that she’s the first to have actually grown up watching the show,” says Carol-Lynn Parente, the show’s executive producer. “We realized that when we saw her come on the set and make a beeline for Grover to give him a big hug.”

The “Iron Chef America” episode, which has been taped but doesn’t air until Jan. 3, features White House chef Cristeta Comerford and three celebrity chefs: Bobby Flay, Mario Batali and Emeril Lagasse. Comerford and Flay are pitted against Batali and Lagasse in the contest, which brings them to the White House.

That’s where Mrs. Obama comes in, revealing the “secret ingredient” they all must use: Anything from her garden. The chefs get to work choosing their veggies.

“We knew we wanted to do a super chef battle,” says Bruce Seidel, the Food Network’s senior vice president of special productions. “The task was to make it intriguing. The White House garden popped into my head, and I just thought it was such a great message — something we want to do better at the Food Network. The White House was very excited.”

Mrs. Obama neither cooks on the show nor judges the results, however. The judges are actress Jane Seymour, former Olympic swimmer Natalie Coughlin and chef Nigella Lawson.

On “The Biggest Loser” episode, which aired last week, the contestants didn’t get to meet Mrs. Obama, but they did get to harvest vegetables from her garden.

And then they got to sample her kitchen, making a big salad, along with Comerford and assistant White House chef Sam Kass.

The ingredients? According to the food blog Obama Foodorama, the Biggest Loser White House Salad is comprised of lettuce, a cucumber, two tomatoes, some red onion and fresh basil.

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