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To Help Change Food Policy, Michelle Obama Looks to Children

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"The garden showed the step-by-step process of how food gets to the table, but the major event culminated in cooking and eating," Kass said. "We're really trying to highlight that it all leads to the table."

Kass also is working on a series of White House seasonal recipes, though it hasn't been decided how they will be distributed. A White House cookbook? A special Web site? The series "is going to be a bigger part of what we do," Kass said. "We are exploring new avenues to get real, practical recipes into the hands of mothers and fathers."

What the White House isn't doing is as significant as what it is. For example, though many advocates might wish it, the first lady has not championed local food. She has used the word -- "What I've learned is that if it's fresh and grown locally, it's probably going to taste better," she told local fifth-graders at the June harvest day -- but on the whole, Obama focuses on freshness and seasonality.

"Despite the fact that there's a huge local food movement, they haven't made it an issue," said Sam Fromartz, author of "Organic, Inc." "By keeping it vague, it becomes much more inclusive."

Nor will Obama stump for farm-to-school programs. It's a pet project of many sustainable-food activists who see them as a win-win because they create new markets for small farmers and increase the amount of fresh produce in schools. It is, Kass said, one small piece of the larger puzzle, but it is not a priority.

Indeed, a key part of the White House strategy is to stay focused. Food reformers are working to change agricultural subsidies, environmental regulations, nutrition standards and food labeling. The White House, Kass said, recognizes that all are important and interconnected. But to succeed, Obama is trying to highlight the issues that most directly affect children: "We're focusing on kids, even though food and health are issues we all face," Kass said. "We want to look at the process from how and what is grown to how it gets to our plates without going in a million directions."

Obama is taking off the month of August. But she will relaunch her efforts in earnest in September. That is back-to-school time and when the debate will heat up in Congress over funding for child nutrition programs including school breakfast and lunch. No specific events have yet been scheduled, but staffers say Obama will continue to try to link the personal to the political by gardening, cooking and eating with students.

"The more they can tell the story of what they're doing, the better it will be," said Slow Food's Viertel. "If they can let people see a family meal, if people see that the busiest man in the world takes time to sit down with his kids for dinner, that could have an incredible impact."

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