Michelle Obama Wants You to Drink More Water—and So Do Soda Companies?

Last month, First Lady Michelle Obama launched “Drink Up," a campaign to get people drinking more water. The kickoff took place in Watertown, WI, a city that has been lauded for having high-quality tap water.

But while getting people to drink more water is a worthy goal, a closer look at the campaign and its sponsors brings up some bigger questions.

Why a Campaign to Drink More Water Makes Sense

Everyone agrees that water has multiple health benefits. Even so, many studies have shown that most people drink less than the often-repeated (though likely inaccurate) recommendation of 8 cups a day.  One recent CDC study found that close to half of adults drink less than 4 cups of water a day

Ample encouragement for water drinking can be found on Drink Up’s flashy new website, which focuses on how water can make us stronger, full of vitality, and more powerful. 

The Drink Up campaign is part of Let’s Move, Michelle Obama’s national organization that works to reduce childhood obesity by encouraging families and communities to eat more healthily and be more active. 

It’s one of many well-funded national organizations working to address childhood obesity, from FoodCorps, which supports school gardens and local food in schools, to Cooking Matters, which offers free cooking classes (with funding from Wal-Mart and ConAgra) in clinics, homeless shelters, and other settings.  

A close friend of mine works for FoodCorps, and I’ve taught Cooking Matters-funded classes at the community health center where I work.  I think all these programs have something useful to offer, and share some of the same strengths and weaknesses of Let’s Move and Drink Up.

Simple Message Focuses on Individuals, Leaves Out Systems

Drink Up’s focus on water provides an easy, positive, low-cost health message: Let’s all drink more water!  That’s it. 

The Drink Up campaign wants you to take a picture of yourself drinking water and post it on social media, thus encouraging your friends to drink more water, too.  As a health educator myself, the inspiring message of drinking one more glass of water a day makes sense to me. 

I have seen many people’s health improve as they increased their water consumption, in the process cutting back on sodas and other sweetened drinks and lowering their blood sugar and blood pressure.   

Individual actions have individual and family-level impacts, and I believe these are important. Yet structural, society-wide change can shape individual decisions for many people. Drink Up avoids talking about structural change--but it doesn’t have to.

It’s worth noting that Michelle Obama launched Drink Up in Watertown, WI rather than in one of the many Central Valley communities where potable water is unavailable because all tap water is heavily contaminated by pesticides and herbicides. 

What’s the Real Goal Here?

As reported by the Washington Post, the American Beverage Association (the trade group for soda companies) and the International Bottled Water Association are both sponsors of Drink Up; the full list of sponsors is primarily made up of bottled water companies and other beverage manufacturers. 

The Drink Up logo (a water droplet) will apparently be used by cities to encourage the drinking of tap water but also placed on more than a half a billion bottles of water (and more than 10,000 reusable bottles) in an effort to sell bottled water produced by soda companies. 

Drink Up’s message includes no particular encouragement to replace soda or other sweetened drinks with water--in fact, at a recent press conference, a spokesperson claimed it was not a public health campaign at all. 

It’s clear that Drink Up is not a campaign to implement successful strategies for decreasing sugar-sweetened beverages like banning them in schools or limiting how they’re marketed to children. 

Emphasis on Families as Consumers Gives Corporations a Pass

Though Michelle Obama knows that healthy eating is a policy and public health issue, she generally prefers to frame it in her high-profile campaigns as a family and community issue.

She places the burden of change on parents as in a recent speech on childhood obesity to the National Council of La Raza. In this speech she spoke about “empowering families with the information and resources they need.” 

While it’s true that families have a great deal of power to impact their own health, Let’s Move campaigns over-emphasize families’ role as consumers while ignoring the role of food companies, like Coca Cola and Pepsi, that get rich by selling harmful products.

Treat Water Like the Precious Medicine It Is

Even within this framework, I’d like to see Michelle Obama talking about water as medicine—free, widely available medicine that helps with headaches and is an important part of preventing and treating chronic illnesses like diabetes and high blood pressure, both of which are all too common in low-income communities of color. 

Most of all, I’d like to see Michelle Obama using her podium to encourage regulatory action limiting soda advertising to kids and eliminating pesticide contamination of drinking water. If she doesn’t want to campaign for these changes directly, she could certainly use her wealth and widespread popularity to encourage other people to get together, organize, and advocate for these issues.

In the meantime, there’s an easy way for any us of working in an office or community setting to make a difference: we can serve water and healthy food at our meetings, so that people with diabetes and other chronic illnesses can fully participate.

What do you think? Is a corporate-funded campaign to encourage people to drink water better than none at all? How would you like to see Michelle Obama and other public figures support healthy living? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Image credit: Official White House photo by Amanda Lucidon
About the Author: Ariana Jostad-Laswell is a graduate student at the University of California San Francisco, where she studies medical sociology. She also works at a community health center in Berkeley, where she provides diabetes education and nutrition counseling to low-income residents of the East Bay.