New York State School Boards Association

Child obesity has prominent foe: First Lady Michelle Paterson

On Board Online • Top Stories • June 9, 2008

Michelle Paige PatersonBy Marc Humbert
Senior Writer

Michelle Paige Paterson plans to use her role as New York’s First Lady to pursue a cause she has sought to address for years: childhood obesity.

A trim woman of 47, she presents a good role model. Paterson took up running 32 years ago when she was a teenager in Manhattan.

“When I was going through puberty I wanted to do something because, you know, that’s when you start getting the curves,” she said with a hearty laugh.

“I spent a lot of time in Central Park, riding my bike and running around the reservoir,” Paterson told On Board during a recent wide-ranging interview on the airy veranda of the Executive Mansion in Albany. “It became a lifestyle for me.”

She turned her husband, Gov. David Paterson, on to running, and he has run a New York City Marathon. While her husband has sought to grapple with fiscal issues, a still-struggling upstate economy and restoring confidence in government after the resignation of Eliot Spitzer, Michelle Paterson is using her background in health care to become a champion of programs that encourage young people to adopt healthy eating and exercise habits.

Thirty-two percent of American schoolchildren are overweight or obese, according to report issued May 27 by the American Medical Association. The percentage has been steady at 32 percent since 1999.

“My background is in health care. I have been working in that area now for about six or seven years, and ... you hear so much about kids developing Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease,” Paterson told On Board.

She’s particularly concerned about the black community. “Living in Harlem, it seems like everybody that you see walking down the street is either overweight or obese,” she said.

From her professional reading, Paterson discovered “this was the first generation of kids who may not outlive their parents” and decided to begin  a grassroots effort to do something about it.

Working with a friend from North General Hospital, where she was director of community and government affairs from 2002 to 2005, Paterson came up with the idea for a “Healthy Steps to Albany” contest.

Enlisting school leaders from Harlem, Paterson soon had middle school children learning about how to eat healthy. And, she got them walking.

The sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders in District 5 were given pedometers.

“The class from each of those grades that reached 4 million steps the quickest won the contest and got to come to Albany,” Paterson said. She spoke immediately after finishing an al fresco lunch with the winning students on a patio outside the Executive Mansion on May 14.

The New York Mets honored the students at Shea Stadium and BET agreed to produce a documentary.

At the Executive Mansion luncheon, the new governor did his part to promote the effort.

“About a year ago, we asked the governor if he would come to the ‘Healthy Steps to Albany’ lunch on May 14 of this year,” David Paterson told the three dozen students. “Little did I know that when we were asking the governor, that it would actually be me who is welcoming you to my new home.”

“One out of every four children in this state suffers from childhood obesity,” the governor said. “This is the most important issue we can be working on as young people.”

The first lady said the increase in childhood obesity was due to a host of factors, including fewer gym classes because “schools are more focused on teaching to the test.”

She said New York’s education system “could be a whole lot better.”

“I was reading that the dropout rate is something like 40 or 50 percent in New York City, which is horrible,” she said. As a solution, she favors expanding the school day.

She was born in California, where her father was serving in the Air Force. Paterson’s family moved to Brooklyn when she was two and then to Staten Island. She remembers her time in New York City’s smallest borough fondly.

“Where I lived we had fields in the back and ponds. It was a great place to grow up and play outside,” she said.

She moved to Manhattan as a teenager.

For Paterson, the sudden adjustment from being the relatively unknown wife of a lieutenant governor to New York’s first lady has not all been easy.

“David got one job and I got five,” said Paterson who is still an executive with the Health Plan of New York HMO.

Nonetheless, Paterson said there is a major upside to being the wife of the governor.

“At least I feel I can do something on a bigger scale to help people,” she said. “I like that part.”

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