White House chef gets behind first lady's drive to improve eating habits

Tuesday, September 21, 2010; HE01

Sam Kass may be the only White House chef named one of People magazine's 100 Most Beautiful People. But the 30-year old-Chicago native also has a more serious title: As the senior policy adviser for healthy food initiatives, he plays a major role in Michelle Obama's Let's Move initiative to combat childhood obesity. And when the president wants a pie, Kass is his guy.

Last week Kass chatted with Post reporter Nia-Malika Henderson. Excerpts follow:

Henderson: Will the first lady be able to get kids to change their habits?

Kass: We know that the goal the first lady has set is quite ambitious, but it has to work. I don't think the country has much choice.

Is there any proof so far that it's actually working?

There are tremendous signs that we are on the right track: Pediatricians have committed to screen for [body mass index] and are writing prescriptions around exercise and fruit and vegetables. Food companies are committing to really make meaningful change in their products and how they sell them. Schools across the country are taking a more comprehensive approach to wellness.

Did you think about healthy eating before you started working for the Obamas and came with them to Washington?

As a young chef, I'm sitting there at my cutting board chopping away, and I have all these farmers dropping off all of this food to me, and then I'm cooking it and sending it out of the other side of the kitchen into the dining room. It doesn't take long to start wondering what the effect of the food that I cooked has on the people who are eating it. These are issues that have personally meant a lot for a long time.

The pantries and refrigerator in the White House: Is there junk food there?

I'm not going to divulge top-secret information about what's in the fridge. But the first family lives and breathes this stuff. The basic lesson is this: If in general we are eating a healthy, balanced meal, with whole grains and fruits and vegetables, then having fries and a burger or having candy or cake or pie every once in a while is completely fine. That's how the Obamas approach it.

Mrs. Obama has talked about her weaknesses for fries, and I hear that the president has a weakness for pie. What are your weaknesses ?

I love it all, as long as it's done right. I grew up on good old South Side fried chicken. I'm a chicken-wing lover; I will really go after some spicy wings.

Do you have a signature dish?

The signature depends on what is coming out of the first lady's garden. We just let that garden dictate what we put on the plate.

Have there been meals that you messed up?

Not with the Obamas, at least not that I know, but I'm sure somebody hasn't liked what I've prepared.

What are some of the favorites foods from the White House garden?

This year we had tomatoes from Thomas Jefferson's seeds that have been passed down. They were kind of weird-looking, but they were bright red and just beautiful. We had a bicolored sweet corn, and it was just delicious. We have tons of sweet potatoes that we are going to harvest, and I predict they will be a favorite. We'll have sweet potato pie, sweet potato everything.

What advice do you have for busy parents?

Small changes can have a huge impact. For kids, if you grow up with skim milk, that's all you'll drink and you'll think 2 percent milk is disgusting. Make sure the healthy snacks are accessible: If you have a jar of cookies on the table and the fruits in the back of the fridge, kids are going to grab the cookies. Try to set your child up for success, and cook and sit down for a family meal.

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