To Help Change Food Policy, Michelle Obama Looks to Children

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 15, 2009

It was the ultimate photo op. Thirty-six smiling fifth-graders eating a healthful meal they'd cooked themselves at a picnic table in the First Lady's Garden. The story line was as simple as it was seductive: They came. They planted. They harvested. In three short months, Michelle Obama had accomplished what other food advocates could only dream about. Good food was no longer just virtuous. It was cool.

That was easy. Now what?

That's the question Obama's food policy team is working on this summer. The garden was always intended "as a jumping-off point for getting to what sometimes can be a complicated conversation about how we eat [and] the food choices we make," Obama policy director Jocelyn Frye said in an interview. But as it moves beyond the symbolic to those meatier matters, the White House is grappling with the very issues that have challenged the so-called good food movement for decades: How do you simplify and sell a new way of eating?

That isn't so easy. Food -- unlike, say, the space program -- is a fundamental and intimate part of everyone's life. It's culturally, politically and economically complicated. And there's a fine line between government involvement and paternalism: It's one thing to educate people about the importance of a healthful diet and quite another to tell them what to eat and where to buy it. The garden has been an unqualified success; on the first family's trip to Moscow last week, Russians were far more interested in Obama's garden than in her fashion sense. The challenge now is to craft a strategy to capitalize on Obama's newfound clout to improve school lunches and access to fresh fruits and vegetables and to make how we eat an integral part of the national health-care debate.

The main architects of the plan, along with Obama herself, are Frye and Sam Kass, an assistant chef who also serves as the White House food initiative coordinator.

Frye, 45, a Washington native, attended Harvard Law School with Obama. Kass worked as a personal chef for the Obama family in Chicago before joining the family in Washington. The 29-year-old oversees the garden and is often photographed in his chef's whites working with students. But Kass spends a significant amount of time in a suit in the East Wing and out and about in Washington. Last week, he sat in the front row alongside members of Congress as Vice President Biden announced the administration's new food safety proposals.

Given the success of the garden, it's no surprise that part of the East Wing strategy is to keep doing what they're doing: make fresh, healthful food seem accessible, even normal. In interviews and at public events, Obama makes a point of telling her own story. As a working mother, she often took her daughters out to eat several times a week or ordered a pizza for dinner. When the girls began to gain weight, she says, her pediatrician suggested she rethink how the family was eating. By making a "small change in our family's diet and adding more fresh produce for my family, Barack, the girls, me, we all started to notice over a very short period of time that we felt much better," Obama said at the harvest event.

To create that down-to-earth feeling, Obama has invited local schoolchildren, not celebrity chefs, to the garden. (Chez Panisse's Alice Waters, who lobbied for a White House garden for more than a decade, hasn't been asked to any of the official garden events, for example.) Obama also has made a point of appearing at soup kitchens and community health centers to talk about the importance of a healthful diet. And produce from the garden is donated to Miriam's Kitchen, which serves healthful meals to the homeless in Washington. "Accessibility and affordability has always been part of the message," Frye said. "It's why we partner with elementary school kids. You pierce through all the constituencies and say, 'It's about kids.' "

That might not sound like tactical brilliance. But Waters and other pioneers of the local-food movement have long struggled with perceptions of elitism. Critics mocked their breathless praise of farmstead cheeses or the ultimate roast chicken, painting them as out-of-touch, arugula-loving yuppies. "Michelle has used her position in a way that has made people realize this is a very simple, very American impulse," said Josh Viertel, president of Slow Food USA, which promotes small farmers and artisan producers. "What they're doing is normalizing something that should be normal."

"She has enormous influence," added Tony Geraci, director of food service at the Baltimore City Public Schools. Where funders used to ask for feasibility studies, he said, they now are looking to invest, even in the midst of an economic downturn. "In the last months, there has been a national awareness that these food issues are real."

Most appraisals of Obama's efforts have been positive. But she hasn't escaped criticism. In a May 31 Op-Ed in the New York Times, food writer Amanda Hesser chided the first lady for implying that cooking is a chore when she breezily admitted that she was happy to leave the cooking to White House chefs. "Terrific local ingredients aren't much use if people are cooking less and less," Hesser wrote. "Cooking is to gardening what parenting is to childbirth."

Frye and Kass counter that inspiring families to cook is part of the White House plan. Earlier this month, for example, Obama invited graduates of the Brainfood program, a nonprofit organization in Washington that teaches life skills through cooking, to help prepare for a White House luau and the Fourth of July celebration. Over the course of a week, 19 students shucked corn, washed lettuce and made strawberry tiramisu.

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