Eat Your Vegetables!
By Daphne Bishop
Did you ever think that mom’s admonition to “Eat your vegetables!” would not only shape national policy, but forge culinary partnerships between children, farmers and chefs to revolutionize the way we eat?
Sam Kass is the chef who cooks for the Obama family with an eye towards uniting healthier menus and the policy goals of producing local foods and reducing childhood obesity. Even his official title is a bit of a mouthful. As “White House food initiative coordinator,” Kass whips up tasty meals that emphasize smaller portions and more vegetables, including those grown on the White House lawn.
The larger goals of his newly created position put him in a unique position. Chefs, especially those who emphasize preparing local and artisanal foods have gained respect and wide followings in recent years. But they aren’t usually seen in the political arena shaping food and agriculture policy. “It’s been a challenge to figure out my position,” Kass noted recently. He is well aware how many children are used to heavy junk foods with a dearth of vegetables. Many have never seen a farmer, let alone walked through a field of peppers and tomatoes.
His relationship with the Obamas goes back to Chicago, a city well known for fabulous and fattening gourmet and ethnic foods. First Lady Michelle Obama has often said that it was the family pediatrician who first suggested a dietary change to prevent daughters Sasha and Malia from gaining weight. Kass was the chef she hired, and he has been widely credited with dramatically changing the family’s eating habits for the better. Because of this positive experience, the “most important woman in America” has seen the vital connections between the way we shop for food, where it comes from, how we prepare it, and the health and well being of all of the nation’s children and adults.
Kass is now working with President Obama’s Domestic Policy Council, other members of the First Lady’s staff, the Department of Education and the Agriculture Department on a healthy foods initiative. The council has two critical tasks beginning with distributing grants for strategies to reduce obesity. The council is also working to make sure that the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act includes removing junk foods and putting healthier foods on school lunch menus.
To help launch the HealthierUS School Challenge, Kass recently brought chefs and kids together on the South Lawn of the White House for samples of healthy breakfast treats. He has been visiting innovative programs in places like the Baltimore school system, where they run an organic farm and have “Meatless Mondays” on their cafeteria menus. He is planning a winter garden with tours for people interested in replicating the Obama family’s healthful bounty, and he is looking for ways to get fresh produce into inner city stores.
A graduate of the University of Chicago and a veteran chef both here and abroad, Kass may well be the right person at the right time. Michelle Obama’s fight for better nutrition and food education coincides with dramatic public awareness about the link between food and health.
Says Kass, “The First Lady has repeatedly said the issues of feeding our kids healthy food, getting exercise and raising a healthy younger generation are challenges that every single family across the country faces – Democrats, Republicans and independents…Everyone agrees it is not easy to do. So many people have been doing this for decades, and we are trying to learn from their mistakes.”
Sounds like a recipe for success to me.