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How Bill Clinton’s Health Scare Inspired Chelsea’s Fight Against Childhood Obesity

Chelsea Clinton is one of Variety’s 2017 Power of Women New York honorees. For more women in entertainment using their voices to bring attention to worthy causes, click here

After Bill Clinton underwent emergency heart bypass surgery in 2004, he reached out to the American Heart Assn. to see what he could do for the organization. He envisioned it would want him to be the poster child for men visiting their doctors more regularly — but the group had another mission in mind: “The American Heart Assn. said, ‘Yes, please talk about that. But what we really need help on is childhood obesity,’” recalls Chelsea Clinton.

Marco Grob for Variety

That conversation led to the 2005 creation of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, co-founded by the Clinton Foundation, which empowers kids to develop good, lifelong habits around nutrition and physical activity. “Today, the Alliance is the largest childhood obesity effort in the country,” says Chelsea, who sits on the organization’s board of directors. “We work in more than 35,000 schools, touching the lives of more than 20 million kids.”

In recent years, the nonprofit has expanded to work with after-school programs and McDonald’s, which has exchanged soda for juice and French fries for fruit in some markets. “Things like that may seem small, but that’s led to billions more servings of apples,” Clinton says.

Clinton has also implemented a pilot program in 21 juvenile detention centers, which she studied as a correspondent at NBC News in 2012. At the Alliance, she toured one facility in Little Rock, Ark., with CEO Howell Wechsler, to observe the conditions. “She did a brilliant job of not only interacting with the director and staff, but with the youth that are incarcerated there,” Wechsler says.

Clinton, who holds a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, argues that this work touches on all corners of society. “If you care about economy, you have to care about childhood obesity, because we know the implications for productivity,” Clinton says. “If you care about national security, you care about childhood obesity — we’ve had years where the military has said there are not as many people who could meet the fitness tests. I think you have to pay attention to this issue, and hopefully be part of the solution.”

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