The Next Course
Why Children Are Key Players in Michelle Obama's Food Policy Moves

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.

"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."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company