CHICAGO — First lady Michelle Obama tapped into memories of eating — and overeating — as a child growing up on Chicago's South Side.
Obama, who grew up in South Shore, recalled eat-fests at family celebrations, particularly at the home of a grandfather she called "Southside."
Speaking to the National Council of La Raza meeting in New Orleans on Tuesday, Obama said food is an important part of people's culture. Even when finances are tight, "by cooking for our loved ones, we show them how much we care about them, even when we can't say it words," she said.
"And that was certainly true in my family when I was growing up," said Obama, describing how the family often celebrated over at her grandfather's house.
Southside's ribs were "legendary," she said.
Her mother, Marian Robinson, was one of seven children so "there was always some kind of special occasion going on. So we were over at Southside's just about every weekend, packed into his little house, eating those ribs for dinner."
The evenings would go late into the night, with family members listening to jazz and playing cards.
"And then, when we could barely keep our eyes open, Southside would jump up and ask 'Anybody want cheeseburgers and milk shakes?' He didn't want us to leave. Then we'd have another full meal at 10, 11 o'clock at night," Obama said, adding "many of my best memories from childhood center around food."
But she said that most days, the food she ate growing up was healthy.
Targeting her Latino audience, she said Hispanic neighborhoods have one third as many chain supermarkets as other communities. Working long hours, many parents find "it's often easier to head to the drive-through or pop something into the microwave."
Hispanic children are more likely not to participate in school athletics and many live in dangerous neighborhoods, which makes it difficult to go outside and play, she said.
The result: nearly 40 percent of Hispanic children in the U.S. are overweight or obese, she said.
Obama's signature health effort "Let's Move" focuses on eating healthier and exercising, a crusade that has led some critics to describe her as a scold.
Obama said she's not advocating "doing away with traditions that make us who we are" but that "while food might be love, the truth is we are loving ourselves and our kids to death."
Calling for moderation in eating and more exercise, Obama said, "We need to step it up."