The most powerful tool first lady Michelle Obama
has in her childhood anti-obesity campaign is the bully pulpit and she used it Friday, urging professional chefs to volunteer in schools. She delivered the message with hundreds of chefs in white jackets gathered before her on the South Lawn of the White House
under a broiling sun.
Afterward, Mrs. Obama moved to the White House garden along with some of the chefs -- including celebrity cooker Rachel Ray, "Top Chef" host Tom Colicchio and the Food Network's Cat Cora -- and a few dozen students to pick homegrown produce. The garden is going gangbusters after being planted on March 31 for the 2010 summer season. Marcus Samuelsson, the guest chef for the White House state dinner honoring the prime minister of India last year, also joined in, helping students in the garden.
Presiding over the mini-harvest and serving as master of ceremonies at the chef event was Sam Kass, 30, whose celebrity is growing faster in his dual role as a White House chef and food initiative coordinator than the garden's vegetables.
Mrs. Obama dates her interest in food policy and healthy eating to discussions she had with Kass, who worked for the Obamas' as their personal chef in Chicago when President Barack Obama
was a U.S. senator and Mrs. Obama was an executive at the University of Chicago Hospitals and also a board member at TreeHouse Foods.
Speaking to the chefs about the importance of healthy eating Mrs. Obama said, "This has been a long conversation that Sam and I have had over the years, and I think it's just pretty powerful to see what started out as a few conversations in our kitchen on the South Side of Chicago turn into a major initiative that hopefully will change the way we think as a country, not just about the health of our kids but about our health as a nation."
The several hundred chefs at the White House for the event were recruited with the help of a non-profit, "Share Our Strength," financed by the food industry and American Express. On Friday morning, Kass and Education
Secretary Arne Duncan told chefs how they can make a difference in schools at a "Share Our Strength" briefing.
Mrs. Obama started her "Let's Move" drive to end childhood obesity within a generation last February. For years, however, the federal government has tried out a variety of ideas run through the Department of Agriculture to encourage healthier eating in schools. During the Clinton administration, the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service created an Internet
database where chefs could submit their names as potential advisers to help school nutritionists.
The chefs-and-schools program launched in the 1990s only attracted about 150 chefs to the register, USDA Deputy Press Secretary Justin Dejong told Politics
That website never turned into an active tool. A few weeks ago, the site was relaunched as the "Chefs Move to Schools" program. Within days, 990 chefs and 488 schools signed up, Dejong said. "Today's event was to highlight an existing tool (taken) to a new level and leverage more modern technology," Dejong said.
Mrs. Obama's bully pulpit can bring "new energy
to an old program," Dejong said, making connections much easier.
"That's why we created the "Chefs Move to Schools" program," Mrs. Obama told the chefs on the South Lawn, "to pair chefs like you with interested schools in your local communities. And together, you'll be helping students learn where food comes from, and develop healthy habits. You'll be elevating the role of food in our schools, and working to create healthy meals on a budget
Mrs. Obama was careful not to step on the toes of school cooks, dietitians and school nutritionists. Last March, she spoke to the School Nutrition Association, meeting in Washington, and praised the work of their professionals. "Our kids don't stop learning at lunch time. Every day with the food you serve you're teaching them these critical lessons about nutrition and healthy eating," Mrs. Obama said.
On Friday, she suggested gently that the chefs shouldn't go into schools and try to take charge.
"Now, just like you wouldn't be thrilled if someone came in your restaurant and told you what to do, we're not asking you guys to go into school kitchens and take over," she said. "And that's an important point to make.
"Our school food service professionals who are out there, they have dedicated their careers to helping our children grow up healthy and happy. They work long hours and they stretch budgets to the limit, often with no recognition at all. And their advice has been so invaluable as we've tried to identify areas where schools can improve and become more efficient. So they deserve our respect and our admiration, and I want to take the time now to thank them for their service and for their hard work.
"That's why we're asking you, when you go into the schools, to work closely with our food service professionals to support the work that they do every day, in and out, long hours. They're looking forward to getting some extra help -- they need it -- doing everything from teaching basic cooking skills in the cafeteria to encouraging healthy choices in the lunch line. So they're going to need your support, but it's got to be a collaboration. And we strongly encourage you all to go in with that spirit."
The "Chefs Move" branding is consistent with other components of Mrs. Obama's "Let's Move" project. The latest, "Let's Move Outside," was rolled out last Tuesday at Red Rock Canyon outside of Las Vegas, where she appeared with Senate
Majority Leader Harry Reid
The chefs project is a small piece of the big picture -- getting better food into schools.
In the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity Report, issued last month -- the main policy document for Mrs. Obama's anti-obesity campaign -- a variety of recommendations were made for schools, from growing gardens to getting rid of deep fryers and adding salad bars in cafeterias. Recognizing that public money is hard to find for school kitchen upgrades, the task force suggested that "private companies that manufacture this equipment, companies that benefit from the sales of healthier products, and philanthropic partners should explore ways to make these items more affordable for schools."
is still working on reauthorizing the Child Nutrition Act, which covers the National School Lunch, School Breakfast and Summer Food Service Programs. Last updated in 2004, the law
expired on Sept. 30, 2009; Congress extended it through this September.
Mrs. Obama said, "Aa major key to giving our children a healthy future will be to pass a strong child nutrition bill. And right now, the reauthorization bill is moving its way through Congress, and fortunately it has bipartisan support. Yay!"
: Mrs. Obama dished on how her mother, Marian Robinson, prepared broccoli when she was a kid.
"Let me tell you something. My mother didn't know how to cook broccoli," Mrs. Obama said. "It was watery and mushy, and that's what we thought broccoli was. We thought you could eat it with a spoon and cut it with a knife. And I know a lot of parents out there cooking broccoli like that. It makes it hard to like broccoli if that's how you're cooking it."