michelle__obama_web.jpgTAMPA, Fla. (AP) _ With Republican presidential candidates aggressively campaigning in Florida in advance of next week's primary, Michelle Obama visited the state Thursday to tout a healthy eating initiative aimed at Hispanics and raise some cash for her husband's re-election bid.



The first lady was part of a sharper focus on Florida by President Barack Obama and his surrogates this week as they tried to claim some of the spotlight from the Republican candidates who are traversing the state in advance of Tuesday's critical GOP primary. She spoke at a Hispanic grocery store in Tampa and was scheduled to be at fundraising receptions later in Sarasota and Palm Beach.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood will follow Michelle Obama to Tampa on Friday to talk about progress on a $536 million highway project that will link a crosstown expressway with Interstate 4. Tampa is at one end of the I-4 corridor, in which a large chunk of the state's swing voters reside.

Also Friday, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson conducts a congressional field hearing in Tampa on the impact of a new GOP-supported Florida voting law that restricts early voting and makes it harder for third-party groups to help people register to vote. Last week, President Obama visited Disney World in Orlando to announce he wanted to make it easier for foreign tourists to travel to the U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis also made Florida appearances this week. The White House said Thursday that the president will be visiting the state at the end of February, an unusually early announcement.

At the National Supermarket in Tampa on Thursday, the first lady touted “Mi Plato,'' or “My Plate,'' a new U.S. Department of Agriculture food group symbol to remind Hispanic families about making healthy meal choices and proper portions. She spoke from a podium in the market's colorful produce section to an invited group of guests, many from leading Hispanic organizations.

Obama noted that while one-in-three children are overweight or obese, that ratio is nearly two out of five in Hispanic communities.

“Now, some of this disparity is due to simple economics,'' she said. “This economic downturn has hit Hispanic households particularly hard. And folks are struggling to make ends meet and just to put food on the table, and we all know that sometimes the most affordable options aren't always the healthiest options.''

She said it was also about access. Hispanic neighborhoods often don't have as many grocery stores, making it more difficult for families to get fresh vegetables and other foods on the table.

Obama credited Goya Foods, the largest Hispanic-owned U.S. food company, with spearheading the “Mi Plato'' effort by creating brochures and other resources for consumers as well as educational tools for elementary school students.

Mi Plato, she said, is “a framework that any family can use. Any culture can interpret the plate in a way that is true to their traditions. You just fill up half the plate with fruits and vegetables, you start there, and you fill the rest of it with lean proteins, whole grains, low-fat dairy products. It is just that simple.''

Goya Foods president Bob Unanue said brochures and posters will be distributed to 32,000 Hispanic markets around the country.

“What's so wonderful about Mi Plato is it helps parents understand how to keep their families healthy in a way that's (flexible) enough to suit all cultural traditions,'' Unanue said.

“What I've come to appreciate is that whether you're African-American, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Cuban_ food is love,'' Obama 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.''