Childhood obesity challenges

WASHINGTON — The new director of Michelle Obama’s initiative against childhood obesity knows firsthand the benefits of healthy eating.

Debra “Deb” Eschmeyer and her new husband, Jeff, were preparing to move to Ecuador as Peace Corps volunteers when her high school sweetheart was diagnosed in February 2004 with Type 1 diabetes. The trip was scrapped and Eschmeyer’s life took a different course.

The Ohio native realized other people could stave off diabetes by cleaning up their diets. She started a produce farm in her hometown of New Knoxville, providing fresh fruits and vegetables to about 100 families a week through a community-supported agriculture program. She later co-founded an organization that sends volunteers into underserved schools to plant gardens and overhaul school lunches.

Seven months ago, Eschmeyer’s path led to the White House. She’s the senior policy adviser for nutrition policy and the newest executive director of Michelle Obama’s 5-year-old initiative to reduce childhood obesity.

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A lifelong child nutrition advocate, Eschmeyer says, “I’m used to getting things done.”

On her to-do list: protecting a federal law that introduced healthier foods in schools. She’ll also help roll out an updated “nutrition facts” label on packaged foods and prepare for the post-presidency phase of “Let’s Move,” the first lady’s anti-obesity initiative.

Congress has already rolled back some of the administration’s attempts to make school foods healthier. A law governing child nutrition is up for renewal this year, and the healthier school foods are expected to come under stronger attack now that Congress is completely controlled by Republicans. Many GOP lawmakers say the new rules go too far.

The School Nutrition Association, an industry-backed group that represents school cafeteria workers, has fought the standards. The association says it favors kids eating healthier but argues that many school districts are losing money because students aren’t buying the new lunches.

Mrs. Obama says 95 percent of schools are meeting the science-based requirements.

“There’s not a politician that’s against healthy kids,” Eschmeyer told The Associated Press. “We’re all in the same boat when it comes to that.”

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A 2002 graduate of Xavier University with degrees in international affairs and marketing, Eschmeyer bears a resemblance to actress Bellamy Young, who plays first lady Mellie Grant on the ABC television hit “Scandal.”

At the real White House, Eschmeyer replaced Sam Kass, who arrived with the Obamas in 2009, initially as the family chef. He later added the senior policy adviser and executive director titles Eschmeyer now holds. She earns $115,000 annually and does not cook for the Obamas.

Instead, the 35-year-old likes to take her three-person team out for “gym and dins” — a new workout routine followed by a healthy dinner.

Marion Nestle, a food expert and New York University nutrition professor, said FoodCorps, the school-based program Eschmeyer co-founded with financial support from the federal AmeriCorps national service program, has been “astonishingly successful.” Creating FoodCorps required “extraordinary social and political skills,” Nestle added, “all of which will come in handy in the White House.”

“She knows what’s important and has a good idea of how to get it, and it doesn’t hurt that she’s utterly charming,” Nestle said by email. “If anyone can explain to Congress why the goals of ‘Let’s Move’ matter, and why the campaign’s very real gains must be protected, she can.”

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Eschmeyer says her husband is in excellent health and is managing his blood sugar with an insulin pump, and through healthy eating and exercise. He’s also joined her quest for an improved food and agriculture system. Jeff Eschmeyer works at the Agriculture Department and is helping the agency find new opportunities for conservation in agriculture and better ways to help beginning and organic farmers.

Meanwhile, she’s also thinking about the post-White House future of “Let’s Move.”

She and Mrs. Obama have been reviewing the program with an eye on “making sure that we’re not going to lose momentum. We’re going to find a way that it sticks,” Eschmeyer said at a forum earlier this year.

“This is something that she’s committed to for the long haul,” she said of the first lady.

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