WASHINGTON — Two close Democratic allies of Michelle Obama's push to reduce childhood obesity are hosting the screening of a new film Wednesday on Capitol Hill that casts the "Let's Move" efforts as largely toothless and a gift to the processed food industry.
Filmmakers behind the film Fed Up have directly criticized Obama, saying she "got co-opted by politics" when it comes to obesity.
The project is a highly touted new documentary about childhood obesity narrated by Katie Couric and directed by Stephanie Soechtig. In reviews, the movie has been cast as a Michael-Moore-like exploration of the obesity crisis, directing most of its ire at the processed food and sugar industries, as well as at a U.S. government that has for decades helped to expand their presence in the American diet. The film features interviews with a number of well-known food experts like writer Michael Pollan, as well as interviews with top Democrats like Bill Clinton and Sen. Tom Harkin. Filmmakers have said Obama declined to participate in the film, a decision Soechtig told reporters had "not surprised" the director.
Wednesday night, the film will get even more support from Democratic lawmakers as New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro host a screening in the Capitol complex.
While the politicians in the film steer away from even a glancing criticism of the First Lady's "Let's Move" campaign, experts interviewed are tough on Obama's efforts to fight obesity with public-private partnerships, lobbying in Congress, and use of the bully pulpit.
One of the experts involved in the making of the film, Dr. Mark Hyman, told reporters at a discussion about the film this week that "Let's Move" had fallen victim to lobbyists.
"Michelle Obama came out all guns blazing," he said, "then got co-opted by politics."
The cut of the film hitting theaters this weekend and obtained by BuzzFeed Wednesday is different from the one screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January. The new version features footage of Obama announcing new food labeling guidelines on Feb. 27, nearly a month after the film's Sundance screening.
Improved food labels — along with a ban on fast food in schools and a suggestion that every celebrity who does an ad for soda also do one for vegetables — are among the prescriptions to the obesity crisis suggested in the film. The expert interviews in the cut still include criticisms of Obama's "Let's Move" campaign.
"The name 'Let's Move' was not meant to evoke exercise, it was meant to evoke action on the issue," Pollan says at one point in the movie. He said industry took "Let's Move" to mean an attack on the sedentary lifestyle and "not the food."
"That was a very unfortunate message for the White House to put out," he says in the film. "Because it is the food."
Pollan rejects the deal reached between industry and Obama to cut "1.5 trillion calories out of the marketplace by 2015. "It's nothing," he says, noting that 1.5 trillion calories represents around 14 calories per day for "the average adult or child."
Another expert says Obama has been too beholden to industry.
"When Michelle Obama launched her 'Let's Move' campaign she said, 'This isn't about demonizing any food industry,'" the expert says. "Which is a very politically sensible thing to do, but the problem is if you want to cure obesity you have to demonize some food industries."
A third expert praises Obama as "a wonderful force in the nation's attempt to address childhood obesity," but says she and others in the administration "have to be aware of the lobbying might of the food industry and have to go easier on them than they may want to."
The First Lady's office did not respond to a request for comment on the film or the screening hosted by Booker and DeLauro.
DeLauro attended the kick-off of the "Let's Move" campaign and has been a close ally of Obama's program since it began. She praised the campaign again in a statement hours ahead of the screening.
"The First Lady has made fighting obesity her signature issue. She has launched a national movement to create a healthier future for kids and families that has gained a great deal of traction," DeLauro said. "She has focused the public on this issue and expanded the space for Congress to act. Now it is time for Congress to be part of the solution instead of being part of the problem."
For Booker, the screening is doubly awkward. Not only is the freshman New Jersey Senator a top ally of the administration, he's an honorary vice chair of Partnership For A Healthier America, a "Let's Move"-aligned public-private partnership that embodies the efforts criticized by the experts in the film.
In a statement, Booker defended his involvement in "Let's Move" while also saying the program was only part of the solution to obesity.
"Tonight's film broadens the conversation America must have about our food and our health. There is no one answer to this crisis. I am proud of my affiliation to Partnership for a Healthier America as they are part of the solution. We all should be grateful to the leadership and tireless work by our First Lady and her Let's Move campaign," he said. "It is important to recognize the Let's Move initiative and its important work to end childhood obesity. One important action born out of the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was the ban of all junk food from being sold in schools and implementing significantly higher school lunch standards."