Wednesday, June 17, 2009

First Lady Michelle Obama Becomes The New Leader Of America's Food Movement

The First Lady At The Top of The Food Chain
America’s food movement is filled with thousands of well-intentioned groups that have often been at odds with each other’s goals. Writer Paula Crossfield highlighted this in a recent Huffington Post piece, Step One: Hone The Ask, in which she pointed out that it's difficult to know what to even request that the Obama administration change in food and Ag policy, because food activists have been so disconnected from each other, and have lacked definitive leadership. But as of yesterday, the food movement is in swell shape, because First Lady Michelle Obama has just become the official leader, and she’s laid out, in capital letters, precisely which food initiatives the White House believes need immediate attention, and where her influence is available to be used. "The Asks" have already been honed into a plan, into what can be regarded as round one of making profound changes in our food culture (Pic: Mrs. Obama with a snap pea, at yesterday's garden harvest event).

At an afternoon picnic, during a celebration of the harvest of the White House Kitchen Garden, Mrs. Obama delivered policy-heavy remarks that covered some of the most hot-button topics in food. While ostensibly addressing the Bancroft Elementary School fifth graders who’ve been helping her work in the garden, Mrs. Obama talked about food deserts, local food economies, food security and food justice; getting more fresh and nutritious foods into the USDA’s Child Nutrition programs; the critical issue of reducing diet-related disease; supporting local and smaller food producers; encouraging urban and community gardening. Of course there was a big media presence at the harvest event, but most news outlets failed to report how very far-sighted Mrs. Obama’s remarks were, how progressive and reassuring they are at a moment in time when everything about food is open to debate. Instead, mainstream media focused on the feel-good angle of the story, with headlines like It’s Pea Picking Time in The Garden! and Garden Party: The First Lady’s 73 Pounds of Lettuce.

The White House, however, posted all of Mrs. Obama’s remarks online—as well as on Youtube--because the issues she discussed are not only critically important on their own, but must be resolved in order for many of the President’s policy goals to be achieved, particularly his very ambitious plans for health care reform. Having Mrs. Obama make these potentially volatile remarks is a politically brilliant maneuver, since she’s currently enjoying approval ratings that are higher than the President’s. And delivering the remarks at a picnic--in the presence of the children whose eating habits have been permanently altered after just a couple of months working in the garden (which transformation has been happily recorded for all posterity by NBC, in the Inside The Obama White House TV special)--served to make “the plan” seem like a series of goals that are imminently possible. (Above: Mrs. Obama, during her remarks)

The Plan: Reduce Diet-Related Disease By Changing America’s Eating Habits, Which Will Lead To Food Processors Offering Better Foods
Before the kids tucked into their healthy, just-made picnic, Mrs. Obama talked about the terrible effects of the epidemic of diet-related diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and obesity--and actually used the word “epidemic,” which comes directly from hard policy wonks, particularly the public health activists who are now in charge of the CDC and the FDA. Without reducing the rate of these epidemics, the President’s goal of health care reform simply won’t happen. Mrs. Obama even quoted the budgetary costs of the epidemics to the Bancroft kids: "...$120 billion each year. That's a lot of money."

Mrs. Obama also pointed out that for Hispanics and African Americans, the rates of these diseases are even higher--an unprecedented move for the First Lady to highlight what can only be called a food justice issue. Mrs. Obama said that getting America to eat less high-calorie, low-nutrition foods is crucial to reducing diet-related disease, and once again gave a shout-out against processed foods—for the second time in two weeks. This is obviously going to get the attention of large food companies and chain restaurants. Kentucky Fried Chicken’s recent introduction of grilled rather than fried chicken led to excoriation in the blogosphere—but Kentucky Fried Chicken still feeds millions of Americans, and they handily anticipated Mrs. Obama’s new campaign. Now they look pretty swell, don’t they? And the food-reform activists running the CDC and FDA—as well as various people on Capitol Hill—have already kicked the initial stages of this plan into action, by advocating the Soda Sin Tax, an attempt to make it more costly to enjoy empty calories. Mrs. Obama also pointed out how easy it was to get the Bancroft kids to change their eating habits, simply by having them work in the garden, and that little lesson is not going to be lost on America’s food producers. Kids don’t have to eat junk food, and food producers don’t have to make it.

The Plan: Better School Lunches
Food activists have been advocating for better foods in school feeding programs for years, as well as for increasing federal budget allocations. But the groups have been repeatedly trumped by the USDA and Congress, thanks to regulations that have allowed the worst kinds of processed commodity foods to be dumped into the programs. In her remarks, Mrs. Obama indicated that this, too, must change:

…because these meals are the main source of consistent nourishment for these kids, we need to make sure we offer them the healthiest meals possible…we need to improve the quality and nutrition of the food served in schools. We're approaching the first big opportunity to move this to the top of the agenda with the upcoming reauthorization of the child nutrition programs.

The First Lady has mentioned school lunches a number of times in previous speeches, and it’s a priority for her. And for the President. In addition to enabling health care reform, better school lunches are critical for the President’s other policy plans—especially the goal of getting every student in the country to pursue formal education beyond high school. Ensuring that America returns to global leadership in the sciences depends on well-nourished kids, too. With billions of federal dollars invested in science and technology, the comparatively low cost of better school lunches is a very wise move. But perhaps most radically, Mrs. Obama’s remarks are putting processed food companies and commodity crop producers on notice that they will no longer enjoy the kind of massive, multi-billion dollar USDA buys of poor products that have been standard operating procedure. Even the meal served at yesterday’s picnic spoke to this. The Bancroft kids helped the White House chefs create baked chicken dipped in egg and dredged in bread crumbs, and assistant chef/Food Initiative Coordinator Sam Kass announced that “Breaded and baked is the new fried.” Getting fried chicken nuggets off school lunch menus might seem like a small change, but it has big implications. (Above: The First Lady in the garden with Bancroft students)

The Lunch Plan, Part II: Farm-to-School Programs
Announcing the need for better foods in school lunch programs also speaks to a willingness on the part of the Obama administration to encourage farm to school programs, something that advocates such as Debra Eschmeyer, of The National Farm To School Network, have been working on for years. Farm-to-school programs are the best way to get the freshest, most nutritious foods on to children’s lunch plates, but this, too is a radical idea, as it cuts into the profits of industrial food processors. On the other hand, farm-to-school programs fulfill another Obama economic goal--supporting smaller farmers and local enterprise. There are no announced plans--right now--for Mrs. Obama to testify at the upcoming Child Nutrition re-authorization hearings on Capitol Hill--but this could well change.

The Plan: Eliminating Food Deserts, Increasing Food Security
Mrs. Obama also directly addressed food security and food deserts. No First Lady has ever uttered the words “Food Desert” in public, let alone explained what the term means:

…in so many of our communities, particularly in poorer and more isolated communities, fresh, healthy food is simply out of reach. With few grocery stores in their neighborhoods, residents are forced to rely on convenience stores, fast food restaurants, liquor stores, drug stores and even gas stations for their groceries…sadly, this is the case in many large cities and rural communities all across this nation.

Mrs. Obama is not only further making the case for healthier food and improving local food economies, she’s supporting the President’s ambitious plans for rural development, and justifying all the Recovery money that’s being invested to improve infrastructure. And once again, she’s speaking out against processed fast foods. And she's encouraging gardening, which leads to...

The Plan: More Gardens, More Garden Tech
Mrs. Obama also applauded community gardeners in her remarks, pointing out that there are a million community gardens nationwide, and urging the creation of more. The presence of these gardens is crucial not only for encouraging healthy eating and nutrition awareness, but also for eliminating food deserts, enacting health care reform, and ensuring that people eat better in a terrible economy. There’ll be more encouragement of gardening--particularly urban gardening, aquaculture and vertical gardening--to come out of the White House in the future. No one’s really focused on it, but the White House Kitchen Garden is the ultimate urban garden, located, as it is, in the middle of DC.

The Plan: Encouraging Ongoing Nutrition And Health Education, Encouraging Food Facility
In the future, there will be far more activity coming out of the White House which focuses on food facility, which is an understanding of the fundamental nutritional qualities of fresh and whole foods, and the ability to use these appropriately. There are literally millions of people in America who have no relationship to food in its original state, and a critical part of the ongoing fooducation campaign will be re-acquainting people with what has become, for much of the population, a foreign concept: Cooking. It's far easier to change your personal food profile if you're in command of the knowledge, skills and techniques needed to maximize the potential of a range of foods. There will most likely be a continuing focus on this; much as the First Lady is inviting artists and musicians into the White House to perform for and mentor children, there could well be a similar program with food. The White House Kitchen Garden can be regarded as a microcosm of this mentoring program, the initial salvo in the nutrition and health campaign. (Above: The First Lady and Sam Kass shell peas yesterday, in the White House Kitchen)

So, yep. Michelle Obama, Leader of The Food Movement, has served notice that things must change, and we now know exactly what issues are deemed critically important for round one, what can be successfully asked for, and what the Obama administration is willing to focus on. Certainly the food initiatives will get bolder in the coming years, but the issues Mrs. Obama has already raised are things that have been tirelessly worked on for years, and which need to be addressed immediately. With the First Lady's leadership, the time frame for these issues can get compressed. Announcing the White House Kitchen Garden as organic was essentially testing the waters to gauge America’s response to food change. Organic practices, in the past, have registered with the public as the province of both elitists and hippies; Mrs. Obama has now made organic foods and gardening seem like just a regular old thing, something regular people can and should embrace. The pushback over the organic issue has been fairly minimal, and came primarily from the most obvious suspect--the chemical lobby. And that’s a good thing. Because there are a lot of changes needed in the food system, across the board, which go far deeper than round one. But luckily, Mrs. Obama has some very important allies for her campaign—Chef Sam Kass, who is her Food Initiative Coordinator; her husband, who just happens to be the most powerful guy in the country; and every Eater in America.

*Related: The recipes for White House Kitchen Garden Baked Chicken with brown rice & peas and Salad is here. Mrs. Obama's remarks at Bancroft Elementary School, another exceptional food policy speech, are here. A recap of much of the White House activity surrounding food, gardening, fooducation and kitchen issues in the first part of the FLOTUS food era is here.

*Photo credits: Mrs. Obama at podium and digging in garden by Lynn Sweet, other photos by Reuters