Monday, June 07, 2010

Chefs Are Moving To Schools, And It's Time For Congress To Move, Too

First Lady calls on Congress to move on reauthorization of Child Nutrition Act
First Lady Michelle Obama addressed an army of white-clad chefs on the South Lawn on Friday, as she formally launched Chefs Move To Schools. A new component of the Let's Move! campaign, the program encourages professional chefs to adopt schools in their local communities to help teach nutrition and improve school meals.

In her wide-ranging speech to the visiting cuisinaires, who fanned themselves with their special Chefs Move To Schools paper toques as they sat under a bright, hot sky, Mrs. Obama covered everything from the dire need for healthier foods in schools, passage of the legislation reauthorizing the Child Nutrition Act, to food as a critical part of community life, to commentary on her own mother's cooking.

"If anyone understands food and nutrition, it's the folks sitting here in their whites today," Mrs. Obama told the chefs, who numbered about between 500 and 700, from 37 states.

"My mother didn’t know how to cook broccoli. It was watery and mushy, and that's what we thought broccoli was," Mrs. Obama joked, to much laughter.

But the First Lady wasn't joking as she discussed the upcoming reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act. Congress returns to session today after the Memorial Day break, and there's less than a month for action before they recess again for the Summer break.

The nutrition standards for school meals across America are currently under a hodge-podge of state guidelines, with no national standard in place--and plenty of junk foods still available to children in schools. That's something that could change with the the reuathorization, which is in the form of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

"The Senate Agriculture Committee’s action on the bill this spring marks historic progress on this bill, and it’s vitally important that the Senate continues this effort and passes a bill in the coming weeks," Mrs. Obama told the chefs.

The CNA was last updated in 2004, and covers the National School Lunch, School Breakfast and Summer Food Service Programs, which impact more than 31 million kids daily. The law expired on Sept. 30, 2009, and Congress extended it through this September. Should the new legislation get passed, for the first time, the USDA will be setting a national standard for all foods sold in schools, in accordance with the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. For the first time, ever.

"A majority of Senators and House Members from both parties have publicly called for swift passage of a robust proposal, and I urge Congress to provide the resources that we need to support these important programs," Mrs. Obama told the chefs. "It’s important that we keep the momentum going and we pass this bill this year."

Far more than funding...
The new reauthorization is not merely about funding school food programs; it also has components that match recommendations from the Report from the White House Task Force On Childhood Obesity, which was released last month. In addition to bringing nutrition guidelines for all of America's schools into the 21st century, the legislation mandates wellness policies and programs, ways to procure healthier foods for schools, such as farm to school sourcing, nutrition education in schools, improved training and technical assistance for school food professionals, and support for mothers with infants. It's a profound change from current guidelines, and much needed.

If the bill doesn't get passed, America's kids are doomed to begin a new school year with the same unhealthy, outdated standards in place. The bipartisan Ag Committee unanimously approved the bill in March, but there's been no action since. As a side note, the Committee has also failed to take any action on getting Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, President Obama's nominee to lead USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, confirmed. There's been one hearing for Hagen, which adjourned before completion.

A big response for Chefs Move To Schools
As of Friday morning, 990 chefs and 488 schools had signed on to join Chefs Move To Schools on the USDA website, according to White House Food Initiative Coordinator Sam Kass. The ocean of aspiring violunteers on the South Lawn represented just the start of a new volunteer corps for America's 95,000 schools, and Kass and the First Lady praised them profusely for their willingness to join the campaign.

"I think it's safe to say there have never been this many chefs on the South Lawn," said Kass. "What an amazing day."

"Each of you has so much to offer when it comes to helping our children make healthy choices. You know more about food than almost anyone--other than the grandmas--and you’ve got the visibility and the enthusiasm to match that knowledge," Mrs. Obama said. "You all know how the ingredients we put in our bodies can affect the way we feel, the way we think, and how we grow. This is especially true when we’re talking about our nation’s kids."

Chefs get a policy briefing, too
The superstar American culinary professionals listening to Mrs. Obama make her pitch to the volunteer chef corps included Rachael Ray, Cat Cora, Tom Colicchio, Anne Burell, Ellie Krieger, Marcus Samuelsson and Daniel Boulud. All had attended a morning policy breakfast with the citizen chefs, sponsored by non-profit Share Our Strength. They'd heard from Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and other school food professionals, about the importance of improving school foods for academic success. (Above: Duncan during his remarks)

Citing the one in three school drop-out rate before high school graduation, Duncan called healthier school foods "not just an economic issue, but a moral issue," as he spoke about the need for a robust reauthorization, too.

"The truth is that the food that our kids eat does have a direct effect on how they learn. That’s just the truth," Mrs. Obama told the chefs about the need for healthy foods in schools. "So this isn’t a luxury. This isn’t a set-aside. This isn’t a sidebar."

The First Lady frequently notes during her public speeches that "government can't do it all," and that's something she told the chefs as she encouraged them to get involved with Chefs Move To Schools. But with the Reauthorization, government can do something very, very significant.

Since its formal launch at the White House in February, Let's Move! has amped up at an astonishing pace. Mrs. Obama has received major commitments for action for change in food from all the biggest commercial food corporations. She has the support of publicly held and privately funded non profits, such as the multi-billion dollar California Endowment. She has NFL, soccer stars and Olympians, major media entities such as Disney and Nickelodeon (and their celebs), working to help foster the kind of change that will eliminate obesity within a generation. She has mayors and governors, and major bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. The PTA and the School Nutrition Association are big supporters, as are all the major school associations, medical professionals, and the military.

The First Lady has literally traveled the country promoting different elements of the campaign, with visits to Mississippi, Nevada, California and Pennsylvania. Her only official activity with Mrs. Maragarita Zavala of Mexico during the recent State Visit from President Felipe Calderon was a visit to a Maryland Elementary school, to promote healthy eating and fitness. And Mrs. Obama has thrown open the South Lawn to local groups for fitness activities all summer long. Two weeks ago, Mrs. Obama launched Let's Move Outside, a nationwide physical fitness component for the campaign.

Chefs Move to Schools is a terrific project that boosts the entire Let's Move! campaign with a creative, out-of-the-box solution for improving school foods and utilizing limited resources, but Congress acting on the Child Nutrition Reauthorization is critical for dramatically reducing childhood obesity rates.

"This is doable. It’s right there. But we’ve got to make it happen," Mrs. Obama told the chefs about the bill.

As she thanked the chefs for participating in the program, Mrs. Obama noted "The more grownups who are working on behalf of our kids, the stronger they’ll be."

The question now is: Will the grown ups in Congress work on behalf of America's kids?

*Related: Read Mrs. Obama's remarks and watch a video of the launch here. Before the South Lawn event, the chefs had a policy breakfast, sponsored by Share Our Strength. A huge contingent of America's culinary luminaries showed up to join Mrs. Obama for the launch. After, there was a Spring Harvest of the Kitchen Garden; Cat Cora in action is here; Tom Colicchio is in action here; Rachael Ray in action is here. During her remarks, Mrs. Obama gave Kass a special shout out. A Google map of Chefs Move To Schools is here.

*Photos by Obama Foodorama