Before First Lady Michelle Obama began to encourage Americans to be more active with the White House’s new “Let’s Move!” campaign, the wives of Mexico’s governors were conducting a crusade to combat the junk food trend overtaking their country.

In 2008, media outlets widely reported the grim news that Mexico, a country where hunger once prevailed, ranked second only to the United States in the percentage of overweight citizens.

Today, the leading cause of death for our southern neighbor is diabetes. Some 71 percent of Mexican women and 66 percent of Mexican men are overweight. A quarter of Mexico’s children are too heavy — a 40 percent increase since the last study was conducted in 2000.

Just as in the United States, the leading culprits appear to be sedentary lifestyles and the near ubiquitous availability of sugary soft drinks, fat-filled snacks, and fast food restaurants.

Enter Mexico’s Desarrollo Integral de la Familia (Family Development Agency), or DIF. Headed at the national level by Mexico’s first lady, Margarita Zavala de Calderón, and at the state and municipal levels by the wives of governors and mayors, DIF has taken the lead across Mexico in combating Mexicans’ affinity for heart-unhealthy, flab-inducing foods.

DIF is actively working to educate Mexican consumers about making better diet selections, and offering ideas for including more fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in each meal.

But, in a twist that involves the U.S. rice industry’s largest trade association, the USA Rice Federation, American-grown rice is also one of the leading products being promoted by DIF at the state and municipal levels as part of this healthy foods campaign.

Late last year, USA Rice Federation and DIF formed a partnership to expand the anti-obesity campaign by hosting “training the trainers” events. The two organizations are conducting regular seminars to educate community leaders about healthy eating habits so they can pass along the messages in their own communities.

The seminars include cooking demonstrations and lessons about rice’s nutrition and versatility.

The community leaders invited to attend are those who are responsible for making decisions about what others eat. This includes a mix of school administrators, hospital administrators, community center employees, and journalists, who can offer dietary advice as well as recipe ideas in their writing.

The leaders are learning that rice is not only a low-fat food, but that it is heart-healthy and can be a staple food for combating obesity. The leaders hear a message that rice serves as an excellent complement to lean proteins, fish, and vegetables, and, when combined with these other healthy options, rice can be a delicious, low-fat, center-of-the-plate meal.

The new campaign is operated under the slogan Arroz Americano para un Corazon Sano, a catchy rhyme in Spanish that means in English, “American Rice for a Healthy Heart.”

USA Rice is working with DIF agencies at the municipal level in Mexico City, and at the state level in the states of Sinaloa, Queretaro, and Michoacan, with hopes of expanding the campaign to other states this year.

Because the message about healthy eating is so important, and because rice is such a great fit in a healthy diet, USA Rice is also expanding the campaign’s message to be included in all of its other promotions across the country. As part of an ongoing effort to promote the increased use of U.S. rice in Mexico, the organization already works to feature U.S. rice regularly on morning television programs, in magazine-style cookbooks sold on supermarket shelves, and at various food shows and festivals throughout Mexico.

Now USA Rice is incorporating the message of healthy eating into every promotional activity it conducts.

Because Mexico imports 80 percent of the rice it eats, nearly all of it from the United States, increased consumption of rice is at the forefront of everything USA Rice does in Mexico. However, working with DIF on the healthy-eating campaign offers a community service that will help lend credibility, and loyalty to the U.S. rice industry.

In the same study that ranked Mexico second in the percentage of overweight citizens, the researchers noted that, if the trend continues, Mexico could surpass the U.S. to become the world’s fattest nation in just 10 years.

If Mexico’s community leaders and consumers learn that rice is a key ingredient in a healthy diet, USA Rice hopes it will have played a part in reversing Mexico’s trend toward obesity. For the U.S. rice industry and the U.S. farmer, the hope is that a positive relationship with Mexican consumers now will lead to a preference for U.S. rice for years to come.