TAMPA — Abelardo Arteaga, nearly 90, was raised in Cuba. A doctor once told him: Eat only what you can hold in two hands.
Now he's a trim 155 pounds.
"If I was president," said Arteaga, a retired phone company worker, "I'd close the McDonald's and the other fast-food businesses."
Thursday, he waited outside a central Tampa grocery, hoping to catch a glimpse of first lady Michelle Obama. Mrs. Obama visited the National Supermarket to promote a healthy eating plan to Hispanic Americans, so that children will learn early to eat as sensibly as, say, Arteaga.
The government's latest food tool employs not two hands, but a plate. It's called MyPlate or, in Spanish, MiPlato. Half the plate is filled with fruit and vegetables, and the other half, with protein and grains. There's a spot off to the side for dairy.
Busy parents everywhere struggle to keep kids healthy, Mrs. Obama told a gathering of community leaders, child welfare workers and grocery clerks. The common ground: too much TV, not enough exercise; too much junk food, not enough produce.
But Hispanic parents face additional challenges.
Weight issues are more prevalent among Hispanic children, she said. Hispanic neighborhoods have far fewer markets, meaning less access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
"This economic downturn has hit Hispanic households particularly hard," she said, "and folks are struggling to make ends meet and to put food on the plate. We all know that sometimes the most affordable options aren't always the healthy ones."
Wearing a fitted black sleeveless dress with vertical piping, she stood in front of rows of red, orange, yellow and green peppers, tomatoes, lemons, limes, pineapples and cabbage.
A display of groceries dominated by Goya Foods towered behind her. The butcher case remained tucked behind dark drapes. Thursday was all about beans and rice, or as Goya Foods president Bob Unanue called them, "the dynamic food duo. Batman and Robin."
The Goya executive, as expected, announced that his company has signed on to partner with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's MyPlate program.
Goya plans to create brochures with recipes and tips for healthy eating to distribute in 32,000 stores. The company will put MiPlato symbols on six types of canned beans and publish a MiPlato cookbook, Unanue said.
Mrs. Obama, in her remarks, acknowledged that food stands for more than sustenance in many families.
"Food can be a symbol of cultural identity," she said. "It knits families together."
She recalled a childhood of lingering in the kitchen, not the living room.
"What I've come to appreciate is whether you're African-American, Puerto Rican, Dominican or Cuban, food is love," she said.
"But fortunately, more and more families are realizing that we can still show that love. We can still honor those traditions, but we can do it in a way that's healthy for everyone, especially for our kids."
Mrs. Obama was introduced by Aimee Busquet, 48, an English teacher at Tampa's Jesuit High. Busquet said she grew up in a traditional Cuban home where beef and potatoes were served atop rice. She had juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and was told not to exercise.
"Now kids with arthritis are encouraged to eat better and exercise," Busquet said.
Invited guests included Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor and dozens of people who work with children, including leadership of Girl Scouts of West Central Florida, child-protection workers from Hillsborough Kids Inc., and the creator of the Moffitt Healthy KIDZ program, to name a few.
Steve Mendez, 12, of Kissimmee was there with his family, part owners of the store. He knows all about fruits and vegetables, but expressed a preference for pizza and McDonald's.
At one point, his little brother, 22-month-old Octavian Torres, started fussing loudly.
Mrs. Obama drew laughter when she noted, "He probably wants an apple."
Patty Ryan can be reached at (813) 226-3382 or [email protected]