CLINTON, Miss. (AP) -- Michelle Obama on Wednesday congratulated this Southern state for a more than 13 percent drop in its child obesity rates, saying its example should inspire the rest of the country.
It's the reason she made Mississippi the first stop on a two-day tour to promote her signature effort, the anti-childhood obesity campaign she launched three years ago called "Let's Move."
In remarks at an elementary school near Jackson, the first lady cited new research showing that childhood obesity rates among elementary school pupils in the state had declined by 13.3 percent between 2005 and 2011.
"What's happening here in Mississippi is really what 'Let's Move' is all about," she told an audience of state officials, school nutrition professionals and parents. She urged them to keep on doing what they've been doing.
"It's the story of what you all have achieved here that we want to tell. It's the story we want to be telling in every state all across this country," the first lady said.
When she visited Mississippi three years ago, it had just been declared the most obese state in the nation, she said. But things have begun to turn around in just a few short years.
Mrs. Obama attributed the decline in childhood obesity rates here to efforts by state lawmakers, the Board of Education and individual school districts, which she said took such steps as setting new standards for food and drinks in school vending machines, serving more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and replacing food fryers with steamers, to which she exclaimed, "Hallelujah."
Some churches even declared "no-fry" zones for their congregations, where only healthy food and nothing fried was allowed.
"So there's no reason why this success can't happen in cities and states all across the country -- if we're willing to work for it," Mrs. Obama said. "So now is the time for us to truly double down on these efforts. We know what works. We're seeing it right here. We know how to get results. Now we just need to keep stepping up."
The first lady said Mississippi, and other parts of the country that also have seen their childhood obesity rates come down -- including California and New York City and Philadelphia -- are showing others what works. After all, she said, "love for our children" is the motivating factor.
Mrs. Obama was joined by Food Network star and daytime talk-show host Rachael Ray, who arranged for two school chefs to compete to prepare lunches that meet newly adopted federal nutrition guidelines.
"I'm here to say, Mississippi, thank you. Thank you so much. Congratulations on your work," the first lady said. "Thank you for taking the lead on this issue. Thank you for serving as an inspiration for states and communities across the country."
About one-third of U.S. children are overweight or obese, putting them at higher risk for heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure, among other ailments.
Mrs. Obama launched "Let's Move" with the goal of helping to reduce childhood obesity rates within a generation. In response, a range of industry groups and others, including food companies, restaurants, retailers and others, promised to make their food healthier and make it easier for kids to get needed exercise.
Among the changes: Wal-Mart is now putting special labels on some of its store-brand products to help shoppers quickly spot healthier items. Millions of schoolchildren are helping themselves to vegetables from salad bars that have been donated for their lunchrooms. Kids' meals at Olive Garden and Red Lobster restaurants are automatically served with a side of fruit or vegetables and a glass of low-fat milk.
For the cafeteria cook-off, each school chef was paired with a professional chef and each team was given 30 minutes to prepare a lunch for 20 kids that met federal nutrition guidelines.
One team fixed two types of fajitas and a fruit smoothie, while the other team whipped up a turkey Sloppy Joe sandwich on a patty made of quinoa, fruit salad with a sour cream and honey dressing and broccoli trees.
A panel of 20 students from the school judged the finished products. Mrs. Obama and Ray also sampled the lunches and kept saying how delicious they were.
"If these kids are eating like this every day," said Ray, "I'm coming to lunch here," added Mrs. Obama.
The competition was held for Ray's daytime talk-show, and the results are to be revealed during the March 11 broadcast.
Follow Darlene Superville on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/dsupervilleap
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.