WASHINGTON -- Sen. Bob Casey Jr. has been an advocate for child nutrition programs for years, but Pennsylvania's soft-spoken Democrat will be the first to admit he doesn't have star power.
So when first lady Michelle Obama and celebrity chef Rachael Ray both held events Tuesday to call for federal action on child obesity, Mr. Casey saw the benefits of the limelight.
"Getting something substantial done isn't just policy and bills and what happens in Congress -- we have to have other ways to engage people," Mr. Casey said.
"And obviously with the first lady's involvement, it brings tremendous credibility and notoriety to it, as well as getting help from folks like Rachael Ray to be able to get out a message that sometimes elected officials can't get out."
Ms. Ray, who first made a splash with "30 Minute Meals" on the Food Network and now hosts a syndicated daytime talk show, appeared with Mr. Casey and Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., to advocate for a $4.5 billion funding increase for child nutrition programs.
The senators, who all serve on the Agriculture Committee, hope to move the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act to the floor this year.
The bill, an update to the 2004 Child Nutrition Reauthorization, would increase federal subsidies to school lunches and the farm-to-school program to make meals healthier and higher quality, while also giving the government new regulatory authority over vending machines that often are crammed with unhealthy treats.
In addition, the bill would aim to help hungry children by expanding free school meals at breakfast, after school and during the summer.
"So many big changes can be made with such a small amount of money," Ms. Ray said. "We just had this horrible blood battle about health care, and think about the cost of health care in the future if we don't address this now."
A few blocks away at the White House, Mrs. Obama sounded the same urgent note as she revealed details about her administration-wide campaign against child obesity.
"No one gets off the hook on this one -- from governments to schools, corporations to nonprofits, all the way down to families sitting around their dinner table," Mrs. Obama said, according to a transcript of her remarks.
"And the one thing that I can promise is that as first lady I'm going to continue to do everything that I can to focus my energy to keep this issue at the forefront of the discussion in this society so that we ensure that our children can have the healthy lives and the bright futures that they deserve."
Through the "Let's Move" program, federal agencies within the next year will tackle everything from creating a new food pyramid to promoting walking and biking to school to putting up $400 million for grocery stores and healthy food outlets in underserved areas -- or "food deserts," Mrs. Obama said.
A task force led by White House policy adviser Melody Barnes put together a 120-page rundown of 70 policy recommendations for federal agencies to address the nation's obesity crisis.
About one-third of the country's children, Mrs. Obama pointed out, are overweight or obese -- putting severe strain on the nation's health care system now and in the future.
Mrs. Obama introduced the "Let's Move" campaign in Philadelphia in February, joined by Mr. Casey and others. Children's programs have been a particular focus of Mr. Casey since he came to Congress in 2007 and he said this summer presents a vital opportunity to move this bill -- even as the Senate's time is dominated by high-profile issues like Wall Street reform, a climate bill and a Supreme Court confirmation.
He hoped the profile of child nutrition could be boosted by Ms. Ray.
The television star's foray into lobbying began when she met Ms. Gillibrand at a New York City public school, where Ms. Ray introduced a healthy chicken soft taco meal for students. The two kept in touch and Ms. Ray made her way to D.C. on Tuesday, meeting privately with Mr. Casey and others to push the issue.
By mid-afternoon, she had already taken a shine to Capitol Hill.
"It really does matter -- letter writing, e-mails, asking and demanding that we improve the quality of the food that we're providing our kids with," Ms. Ray said.
"They're here, they're willing to listen and I think if we all use our big mouths to make it a big issue, then this is a really great time to change."
Daniel Malloy: firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-445-9980. Follow him on Twitter at PG_in_DC. First Published May 12, 2010 4:00 AM