*In addition to purchasing local foods, Mrs. Obama was "Tea Kettle Whistling" a heavy duty food policy agenda
*A look at the White House/USDA partnership...
It was drizzling and cold, but that didn't stop hundreds of people from showing up yesterday for the opening of the new Farmers Market By The White House, which is on a street about two blocks from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The crowd had to wait in a line to go through metal detectors, but no one cared, because First Lady Michelle Obama showed up to christen the market, and to make the ceremonial first purchases. DC Mayor Adrian Fenty was there, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was there, and Deputy Ag Secretary Kathleen Merrigan was there. (Above: Mrs. Obama speaks as Sec. Vilsack looks on)
The market's debut was the special event for the fourth day of USDA's weeklong kickoff of the new Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food (KYF2) initiative.
There were famous local chefs roaming around, and all the White House Chefs. It was a party atmosphere, and the federal office buildings lining the street were empty, because most of the employees were at the market. By now, you might've heard that Mrs. Obama wore a lei made of marigolds given to her by a little girl before she bought some yummy locally grown black kale and pears, and some locally produced chocolate milk. (Above: Sec. Vilsack during his remarks)
You might also know that Mrs. Obama bought some eggs and some hot peppers, and that she handed out some of her signature hugs to the crowd. But it should also be noted that at the beginning of the fresh and local party, Mrs. Obama gave a stunner of a food politcy speech.
The First Lady's progressive food policy agenda...
In the political sphere, speaking in "code" so certain members of your audience gets a different message than the rest of the crowd is called "dog- whistle politics." President Ronald Reagan was famous for this, as an easy example, with his use of phrases that were understood differently by Evangelical members of his audience than by the larger public. Mrs. Obama was doing a photo-negative version of dog-whistle politics yesterday, laying out a really progressive policy agenda, that was couched in relatable phrasing. Ob Fo has dubbed this tea kettle whistle politics, and when you take a good look at the First Lady's remarks...what she was saying is unprecedented.
Standing at a podium with a bowl of fresh, locally grown apples in front of her, Mrs. Obama talked about critical issues that progressive food policy wonks have been working on for years. She touched on food access and food deserts, support for small and family farmers, choice architecture, removing institutional barriers to fresh foods, food literacy, food justice, the problems with privileging commodity crops...among many other things. And the First Lady hit the hardest she ever has on the idea that cheap, processed foods demolish health.
But Mrs. Obama did it all without indicting anyone, without pitching her message as a battle between good and evil--a kind of discourse that has long dogged the American good food movement and prevented it from gaining traction with a bigger audience.
Instead, Mrs. Obama framed the issues around her own personal, relatable story of family food epiphany. She began using this approach last Spring, and although her food initiative still gets a lot of reductive coverage, she’s managed to mainstream a very progressive food policy agenda, and bring it to the biggest audience it's ever had.
Certainly this has all been made possible by the fact that for years, author Michael Pollan has been doing much of the heavy lifting, building and elaborating on the work of Wendell Berry ("eating is an agricultural act...") and many other ag-tivists, but in a little less than ten minutes yesterday, in a speech that earned a lot of laughs from the thrilled crowd, Mrs. Obama once again showed why she's the new populist leader of the American food movement. In no uncertain terms, she informed the crowd that her food policy agenda is not only critical to her own life, but also critical to theirs. And she pointed out that it all began with the White House Kitchen Garden.
"I thought it was just going to be a garden...to teach kids about good food," Mrs. Obama said. She looked down at some children in the crowd. "Right kids? Yay for vegetables!" Mrs. Obama was almost laughing at herself as she said it, because she immediately got very, very serious. "But as it turns out, the garden has turned into so much more. It's been one of the greatest things I’ve done in my life so far."
Mrs. Obama said that in addition to the garden being the first thing she gets asked about when visiting "prime ministers, kings, and queens," it's helped her see the interconnections between policies across a range of issues, and has bolstered her belief that small, incremental changes are crucial, and can have a major impact. And then Mrs. Obama launched into the hard-core food policy wonking...brilliantly disguised within her own story. Here's the annotated version of her speech, for your food policy enlightenment...policy issues noted in red. (Above: Mrs. Obama shops at the market)
Mrs. Obama said that she had arrived at her awareness of health and wellness from the position of parenthood. "I was a working mother trying to put it all together," she said. "I learned that the food I put on my table effects the health of my children...when my family eats fresh food, healthy food, that it really affects how we feel, and that's true whether we're trying to get through math homework or weather there's a cabinet meeting or whether we're just walking the dog." Food literacy, nutrition education, choice architecture, supporting local Ag
Mrs. Obama continued: "I've also learned through my experience as a working mother that there are times when putting together a healthy meal is harder than you might imagine. It is not so easy. Take-out food was a primary part of our diet. It was quick, it was easy, we did what was easiest...and it was what kids like, because we didn’t want to hear the whining, right? We were just trying to end the whining."
Mrs. Obama was interrupted with a big laugh from the crowd, who might not have been aware that she was mentioning food literacy, nutrition, food access, the dangers of processed food, a perceived lack of time for cooking, and food swamps, in which eaters are surrounded by too much unhealthy food.
"And sometimes it turns out that the food that is the least healthy for us can sometimes be the cheapest," Mrs. Obama continued. "Even with the best intentions...no matter what our salaries are, no matter what our positions are, we care about our kids...but in this society today, sometimes it's hard to make regular healthy meals a part of everyone's existence, " Mrs. Obama said.
Mrs. Obama is pointing out, by mentioning cheap food, that our decades-long policy of federally subsidizing commodity crops has created a situation in which foods that are made with these crops are the least expensive, and can lead to a diet that has low or no nutritional value. Food access, food justice, legislative barriers to progressive agriculture policy, economic issues, structural and institutional barriers to creating a diversified ag economy, health care reform, local sourcing, supporting small and family farmers
"And this is why I am so supportive of farmers markets," Mrs. Obama said. "For those of us who have a time crunch, and for those us for whom access to fresh foods is an issue in our neighborhoods, farmers markets are really an important resource. This market in particular will provide access to fresh fruits and vegetable, local grains, meats and cheeses, for busy working people, for federal employees. As many private companies have demonstrated, wellness programs are very important for health care reform...you can now run out and pick up some good stuff for dinner on your way home." Same issues as above...
Mrs. Obama also pointed out that at the new market, and at a variety of farmers markets across DC and around the country, policies have been put into place that amp up the monetary value of the federal nutrition cash that's available, for a variety of feeding programs, in order to boost purchases of fresh produce: WIC, SNAP, Senior benefits, Double Dollar: Food access, improving federal feeding programs, removing institutional barriers to access, food justice, reducing obesity and other food related diseases
This series of comments on smaller farming is major: "These farmers play a critically important role in feeding this nation...they grow the fruits and vegetables we find on our supermarket shelves, as well as at farmers markets....they are an important part of creating a healthier environment, healthier communities, and healthier families, and we have to support them," Mrs. Obama said. Diversified agriculture, enacting the President's campaign pledge of supporting smaller farming, anti mono-crop Big Ag, sustainability, conservation, agroecology, health care reform, preventative measures, reducing obesity and other food related disease, economic stimulus for rural communities, local and regional food sourcing
Mrs. Obama closed her speech by big-picturing it all, and positioning farmers markets as a critical element of civil society, vitally important to the well being of individuals as well groups. And civil society, these days, is something we could all use a little more of:
"Farmer's markets are also about community," Mrs. Obama said. "We know that when we start coming out to markets, we're going to start talking to each other...events like this one are about more than good food...it's also about creating better communities."
The Obama mantra for months has been government can't do it all, and both President Obama and Mrs. Obama have repeatedly mentioned the need for personal responsibility as well as community service when making public remarks, and have highlighted community building. Farmers markets are community building around food, with the very happy benefits of boosting health and wellness. Community building through food, food access, civil society...
Got that? It was a whopping food politics speech. Mrs. Obama has been terrific at promoting health and nutrition, and getting the message out to audiences that have little familiarity with the issues, but she's also been tea kettle whistling an enormously progressive food agenda, which is often buried beneath media coverage of her outfit du jour. Or in this case, what was in her market basket. (Above: Sam Kass watches the First Lady, off camera, at the market)
The White House-USDA Partnership, and the food policy end run
In addition to the First Lady's speech, there was another new element in action going on yesterday, too. The afternoon was as much a debut party for the new farmers market as it was a public debut of the intertwined relationship the First Lady and her food policy team has with the new, progressive im-Ag-ineers at USDA.
Mrs. Obama's policy team is led by Food Initiative Coordinator Sam Kass, and includes Domestic Policy Adviser Melody Barnes and Senior Policy Adviser Jocelyn Frye. At the USDA, Sec. Vilsack has put Dep. Sec. Merrigan in charge of the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, which has almost identical nutrition and health messaging to that coming out of the White House.
The two very different teams have been working together for a couple of months, as Ob Fo has noted before, but yesterday was the first time that Mrs. Obama and Sec. Vilsack have actually discussed the relationship publicly. In his own remarks, Sec. Vilsack noted that he and "all of the USDA are excited about the partnership between the White House and USDA," and he credited Mrs. Obama with leading the way.
Mrs. Obama paid her own respects to the Secretary, and to the KYF2 initiative. In past administrations, the Ag department ostensibly worked for the president (or, until President Obama entered office, for itself), but this is the first time there's ever been a partnership between USDA and a First Lady (and her team).
It's also well worth noting that both the USDA and the White House are doing what Ob Fo calls a food policy end run. Neither the East Wing nor the USDA is sitting around waiting for Congress to have its own food policy epiphany, and to vote on legislation that will improve the Ag system, or change things like federal standards in feeding programs...because this could take years.
Instead, the two teams have swung into action to foster as much change as possible by direct action. The USDA is doing it by re-focusing funding through KYF2 and reducing institutional barriers, and supporting this with a public awareness campaign.
The East Wing is doing it with a public awareness campaign, and by inviting all kinds of people into the kitchen and garden for hands-on leadership learning, as well as by developing a slate of projects. To remind, Mrs. Obama is the only First Lady to ever have a food policy agenda, a food policy team, and a Food Initiative Coordinator. KYF2 is the first initiative of its kind to come out of the USDA. Both the USDA and the East Wing are doing the kind of work that food activists have dreamed about for years.
On Wednesday, Sam Kass cooked lunch with Dep. Sec. Merrigan in the USDA cafeteria, and their apple salad two-step was the equivalent of Mrs. Obama and Sec. Vilsack's public kiss on the podium at the farmers market. It's a swell partnership, and it's a big new day in American food. No wonder everyone was smiling yesterday. (Above: Mrs. Obama and Sec. Vilsack sealing the deal on a progressive food policy with a kiss...)
But since everyone wants to know: In Mrs. Obama's market basket...
From The Farm at Sunnyside, a certified organic farm in Rappahannock County, Va: One dozen eggs, two bunches of Tuscan kale, two pints cherry tomatoes, four Asian pears, one pint "patriotic" potatoes (red, blue and German butterball), one-half pint hot peppers. Total spent, according to farm director Michael Clune, $18. From the Clear Spring Creamery, an organic creamery in Clear Spring, Md: A wheel of Claire's Organic camembert, One-half quart chocolate milk. Total spent, according to farm owner Claire Seibert, was $10.00.
*Photos by Obama Foodorama
*Related: Ob Fo was with Dep. Sec. Merrigan for the launch of Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food and posts are here and here; some giggles over the only controversy that's managed to be created over the new farmers market....