An Agrifabulous lunch at USDA highlights serious policy initiatives...
The fryolators were turned off, the donuts were banned, and the food was healthy, local and sustainable when White House chef and Food Initiative Coordinator Sam Kass showed up to be the Celeb Chef during yesterday's lunch hour at the USDA cafeteria.
It was a special bit of fun for Day 3 of the week of festivities to roll out USDA's new Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food (KYF2) initiative, which highlights local agriculture as a way of boosting economic benefits for rural communities.
On the menu at the Chefs Table: Honey Crisp Apple Salad, made with arugula, leaf lettuce, locally grown Honey Crisp apples, red onions, and toasted almonds, topped with an apple vinaigrette. There was a choice of chicken ($9.99/salad) or no chicken ($6.99), and Kass wasn't so much cooking as he was composing, putting together the salads in (environmentally friendly) take-out containers.
The cafeteria food is usually provided by Sodexo, which does institutional foods all around Washington, but today's entree, in addition to highlighting an Ag policy initiative, could have been served at any fine eatery in the country. Which makes sense, because before Kass became allied with the Obamas, and long before he was paradigm shifting the national consciousness on food and gardening, he worked at Chicago's Avec restaurant, as lovely an eatery as is to be found in America. (Top: Kass prepares the day's entree; bottom, a presentation version of the dish)
Adding to the fun: Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, who chairs the KYF2 project, was actually working in the food service station, too, right alongside Kass, wearing a hair net and plastic gloves.
Sec. Merrigan was chatting with the gathered mob, over the top of the condiments bar, and looking distinctly like someone who had spent her pre-Ag visionary years working in restaurants. And there was a mob: The lunch line stretched back almost to the check-out counters, because everyone wanted to see The Guy Who Cooks For The Obamas. A sign out in the USDA lobby highlighted this: It read Photo opportunity today with White House Chef Sam Kass. It did seem as if everyone had their phone cams out, or their real cams, and the more industrious were tweeting the historic moment. (Above: Merrigan and Kass)
"I brought this here from the farm I visited on Monday," Sec. Merrigan said, holding up a potato and showing it to the crowd.
"This is completely local, from Tree and Leaf. I carried the box myself." She chatted up the benefits of local food, and her own employees seemed as impressed that she was in the food service area as they were that a White House chef had shown up. (Above: Merrigan working the food line)
Kass was also being very friendly; a few times he asked the gathered lunchers "are there any questions?" --but there was a general sense of shyness permeating the air. It seemed hard for people to believe that someone who is With The Obamas Every Day was actually piling up arugula and apple slices, and saying "chicken or no chicken?" as if it was normal. And then there were some slightly braver souls.
"I work on school nutrition," one USDA employee offered, while Kass created her salad.
"That's critical, that's so important," Kass said, and gave her a big smile. The employee talked a little about what she did, haltingly, and Kass nodded approvingly, but then her salad was done and the moment was over. (Photo: Kass talks lunch policy)
A tall fellow in a pink shirt was far bolder.
"What are you going to do to make sure the cafeteria is like this every day?" Pink Shirt demanded of Kass. "This is way better than the stuff we usually have here."
"The Deputy is working on it," Kass replied. "This is just the beginning."
Pink Shirt noted that he had to eat in the cafeteria every day, and he didn't like it, because there weren't very many healthy choices. But then his salad was done, too, and he had to move on. Of course Kass also got some questions about what the Obamas eat in the White House.
"Do the Obamas have salad with every meal?" was one of the questions. Kass laughed. "What's the Obama's favorite food?" was another.
"Oh, they eat everything," Kass said, ever the diplomat, and unwilling to betray any state secrets. He smiled some more. (Photo: Kass refills on salad)
At one point, the cafeteria itself turned into one of the issues USDA is working hard to eliminate: A food desert. There were so many people waiting for lunch that the chicken ran out. Dep. Sec. Merrigan took the opportunity to discuss Know Your Farmer goals, but then some more chicken magically appeared, and she and Kass went back to work composing salads.
There was some lunch crowd grumbling about the price of the special entree.
"I just wanted to see what a ten dollar salad looked like," USDA employee Mary F___ told Ob Fo. She said she usually paid $7 total for lunch when she ate at the cafeteria, the limit of her budget. She watched Kass working, and noted that the $6.99 version of the special entree, without meat, wouldn't cut it for her. Food prices: Another critical issue that farmers, eaters and the USDA all deal with, and one of the ongoing problems with getting people to purchase fresher foods in the name of health.
A new high-tech greenhouse project was unveiled today at USDA headquarters as part of the KYF2 roll out, and it will be a 12 x 20 extravaganza in the courtyard outside the cafeteria. In order to make things hyper local at USDA, vegetables and herbs will be grown. And today's event was also a way to highlight another initiative Dep. Sec. Merrigan is leading, "Say YES to Healthy," a pilot program that focuses on wellness for federal employees. At the USDA cafeteria, trans fats are off the menu, 25% of food is already locally sourced, and calorie counts for menu items will be posted--all of which have proven critical for wellness efforts.
Your intrepid blogger kept an ear tuned to the crowd, and listened as people whispered to each other all kinds of things they knew about Kass, who has attained pop culture status thanks to being on Youtube videos, in People magazine, and, just this week, profiled in Men's Health.
Of course there were laudatory comments about the White House Kitchen Garden and about Mrs. Obama's public discussions about healthier eating, but the interesting bits from the crowd were the faux rumors. A sampling:
"He's their personal chef, he doesn't cook at state dinners or anything, he's in the private part of the White House."
"The Obamas fired the real White House chef, the one who was with the Bushes, but they don't want people to know."
"That chef guy is a secret service agent, that's why he's not really cooking. He's a decoy for Michelle."
"I'm going to that new farmers market tomorrow because the President will be there."
And of course the favorite Obama Food Rumor: "The President has a food taster. And the girls bring one with them to school."
All untrue, just for the record, but rumors, it should be noted, go with the job of White House chef, and Kass has endured far worse ones since arriving in DC in January. But they haven't yet been as vicious as anything the President endures.... (In the photo, above, Ob Fo came up with the witty pop culture idea of having Kass and Merrigan autograph a salad, and Kass, a perfectionist, insisted on composing a "perfect" one. Ag writer Sam Fromartz was also on hand for the lunch, and we amused ourselves by styling the shot. Fromartz did extensive interviews with the Deputy Secretary for his book Organic, Inc., and she surprised him with a call on Monday about KYF2. He blogs about it here. He also blogs about Ag cash issues here.)
Kass and Merrigan worked together for more than an hour, and it really was a historic moment in food to have the Deputy Secretary serving locally grown eats right beside a White House chef, in the middle of a federal agency that until recently was still channeling the 1950s.
Change really does seem to have come to the USDA, and your intrepid blogger can't stress that enough. It's going to be incremental, and sure, the time-table is long-term, but it will be, as Dep. Sec. Merrigan noted on Monday, "a four-year adventure." It's a little perverse to dismiss the new KYF2 initiative as "too little" when compared with all the attention and funding Big Ag gets, as some Ag writers (astonishingly!) are already doing; the project is perhaps the most creative re-focusing of institutional resources as anything that has occurred in Washington in a decade.
In addition to the $65 million in grants that Dep. Sec. Merrigan has already announced, which will be focused on local and regional projects, and there's also all the funds from a pathbreaking memo that Merrigan sent around to upper-level USDA employees a few weeks ago (Ob Fo parses the memo here; download the memo itself here; PDF).
Combined with other funding that's available, there's potentially hundreds of millions of dollars sitting in USDA's coffers that have been previously spent on things other than local and regional agriculture. A big part of the KYF2 project is drawing attention to all these funding opportunities for smaller and local agribusiness--an area of Ag that's been historically underserved; and that's why Monday's announcement took place at a small, local farm, and that's why there's a week of roll-out events.
Better still, KYF2 is being done in such a way that all the players at the Ag table can be accommodated, because nothing is being taken away from any other critical constituencies--yet plenty of benefits will accrue, in a panoply of policy areas, not just directly in Ag. It's a win-win.
*Today's Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food event: The White House Farmers Market makes its debut. The First Lady will make an appearance, as noted yesterday, as will Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack. Dep. Sec. Merrigan will announce farmers market promotions program grants for markets in the northeast corridor as part of KYF2.
The new market is on the 800 block of Vermont Avenue, between H and I Streets, NW 3:00 to 7:00 PM. The market is run by FreshFarm Markets, which brilliantly manages eight other farmers markets in DC. On their website, more info here.
*On Twitter, the hashtag for Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food is #KYF2
*Related: Ob Fo with Dep. Sec. Merrigan for the KYF2 rollout on Monday is here (with lots of info about Tree and Leaf Farm) and here.