Thursday, June 24, 2010

Olympians, Sports Heroes, Superstar Chef Help Michelle Obama Launch New President's Council

New York chef Dan Barber is named to new Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition; First Lady calls for Congress to pass school lunch bills...
When First Lady Michelle Obama hosted a special event on Wednesday afternoon in the gym at DC's Columbia Heights Educational Campus, the kids clustered around an ad hoc food prep table had no idea that the thin, bespectacled fellow in the dark suit jacket who was telling them about the limitless charms of trail mix is one of the foremost chefs in America.

Nor did they realize that Dan Barber, that mix master, is as decorated in his game as some of the Olympic athletes and legendary ball players who joined Mrs. Obama to announce the members of the new President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, which is a revamp of the old President's Council--but updated to include the critical food-based element. The kids didn't realize, either, that Barber is making history as the first-ever chef to be appointed by President Obama to the Council. (Above: Mrs. Obama and kids at the prep table with Barber)

"The Council will play an important role in our effort to help combat childhood obesity in this country," Mrs. Obama said, as she described the broadened mandate, which puts the Council in line with the goals of the Let's Move! campaign.

"This Council, as I said, is made up of everyone -- chefs, doctors, health experts, personal trainers," Mrs. Obama said. "We’ve got our Olympic gold medalists. We’ve got a NASCAR driver. We’ve got NBA all-stars, tennis legends. We’ve got it all because we know in the end, kids listen to these heroes in so many ways."

Tennis legend Billie Jean King and top-ranked NASCAR driver Carl Edwards are just two of the new Council members, joining Barber and new co-chairs Drew Brees, quarterback for the New Orleans Saints and Super Bowl XLIV Most Valuable Player, and Dominique Dawes, three-time Olympian and former U.S. national champion in women’s gymnastics.

Barber's reputation in the food world is the equivalent of the Council members from the sports world: Among his many honors, he was on Time magazine's 2009 list of 100 Most Influential People, and the 2009 James Beard Foundation Outstanding Chef In America. He's also one of the most high-profile advocates for local and sustainable agriculture, as well as a sought after speaker and writer. (More on Barber, below).

The Executive Order & the Let's Moving Cabinet Secretaries
"The Council’s original mission was simple: To encourage young people to get enough exercise," Mrs. Obama said, as she described its creation in 1956 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. "But today we know that being healthy is about more than just being physically fit. It’s also about eating healthy foods and really learning which foods to enjoy in moderation."

With little fanfare, President Obama signed an Executive Order on Tuesday, re-creating and re-vamping the Council to include nutrition as part of its mission. The President had been scheduled to join Mrs. Obama at the launch event, but he was busy at the White House, dismissing Gen. Stanley McChrystal from his command in Afghanistan. Mrs. Obama described the President's absence as "he had some other stuff going on," and sent his regrets to the crowd.

"Trust me, he would rather be here," Mrs. Obama added dryly, to woeful laughter from the adults.

Under the Executive Order, members of the President's Cabinet are charged with working with Council members to promote nutrition and fitness. Since the launch of Let's Move!, Secretaries Vilsack, Geithner, Salazar, Duncan, Locke, Donovan, Shinseki, LaHood, and Sebelius have all made appearances with Mrs. Obama at Let's Move! event. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin and OMB Director Peter Orszag, as well as Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan have, too.

As the only chef on the Council, Barber will have a lot to do with the architecture of the nutrition initiatives as the Council begins its first year. Nutrition expert and author Ian Smith and pediatrician Stephen McDonough--whose work in North Dakota includes a focus on childhood obesity--are also on the Council. The first meeting is scheduled for August, according to co-chair Dawes.

Mrs. Obama was also joined by new Council members Tedy Bruschi, former New England Patriot and three-time Super Bowl Champ, Cornell McClellan, her own personal trainer, Olympians Michelle Kwan (the most decorated figure skater in US history) and Allyson Felix (track and field). All had been sworn in earlier in the day, during a small ceremony with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. By mid-afternoon, Mrs. Obama had the Council members dashing around the gym with the kids, doing fun fitness activities--and she joined in, too. (Above: Mrs. Obama and the crowd)

Mrs. Obama says Let's Move! to Congress...
About eighty-four percent of students who attend the middle and high schools at the Columbia Heights Educational Campus participate in the National School Lunch Program, which provides free and reduced-price lunches for students. On June 4, during the launch event for Chefs Move to Schools, Mrs. Obama called on Congress to get in gear and pass the legislation that will reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act.

"I can’t emphasize this more--this bill controls the programs that provide school lunches to kids all across the country," Mrs. Obama said. "If we can do something to improve the quality of food in our schools, we’re going to go a long way to affecting the futures of our children."

Noting that a "majority of Senators and House members from both parties have publicly called for swift passage of a strong proposal," Mrs. Obama said she was proud of the bi-partisan support, and made a call full funding of the legislation.

"Once again, I urge Congress to provide the resources that we’re going to need to support these important programs that will be able to help change our children’s futures and those after that," Mrs. Obama said. "This is an important time. So we’re looking forward to the Congress getting this done."

Update, June 28, 2010: The House will hold a hearing on its Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill on July 1; read about it here.

Fitness Fun
Mrs. Obama was dressed in a very (First) ladylike ensemble--a cotton-candy pink blouse with a huge bow at the neck, belted at the waist with a wide cream leather belt, bell-legged cream linen pants, and silver ballet flats--but she worked up a good sweat as she once again demonstrated that she is an incredibly good sport--though she joked that she was glad of her ballet flats.

Joining about 30 kids from Lincoln Multicultural Middle School, the First Lady juggled brightly colored chiffon scarves with figure skating uberchampion Kwan, and did some yoga moves. And just as she did at last October's Healthy Kids Fair at the White House, Mrs. Obama demo'd that she is wickedly adept at skipping rope. She was able to keep up with gymnast Dawes, the skip-rope group leader (Dawes had been wearing four-inch heels as she welcomed the crowd, but she ditched these in favor of ballet flats as she skip-roped). At 33, Dawes still looks like she might break into one of her signature tumbling runs at any moment, with incredibly well-defined muscles.

"She's good, she's very good," Dawes said after the event, about Mrs. Obama's technique, which included crossing her arms in front of her, skipping rope on one foot, as well as making what one reporter counted as about 100 revolutions in a row without missing a jump. Dawes said that she skips rope every day as part of her own fitness routine.

Dan Barber, banana chips...and burgers
When she was done with the rope work, Mrs. Obama visited Chef Barber at the trail mix table. He'd been telling the kids about portion size, the importance of eating fruits and vegetables and whole grains, and discussing options for healthy low-fat snacks (above: Barber illustrates what happens when portion sizes aren't controlled...)

Barber and Mrs. Obama talked some more with the kids, briefly, about nutrition. Nuts had been left out of the ingredient list for the trail mix, due to allergy concerns, but the kids were loving the combo of banana chips, raisins, dried cranberries, sunflower seeds, rolled oats and pretzels. They were scooping it into plastic baggies, and munching happily.

And no, an East Wing spokesperson advised, Barber would not be guest cheffing at the White House while he was in DC. Trail mix was enough, apparently. Barber left the event before Mrs. Obama did, slipping out after she had given him a hug and whispered something in his ear.

The President took Mrs. Obama to Barber's Blue Hill restaurant in Greenwich Village for a Date Night last year, fulfilling a campaign promise for a New York dinner and Broadway play, should he win the election. First Dog Bo was also a campaign promise, for daughters Malia and Sasha.

But despite Barber's extreme talents being focused on trail mix, and his reputation as an extraordinary chef, during her remarks Mrs. Obama was quick to note that even the best nutrition regime includes burgers and other foods that aren't necessarily high-cuisine--or considered healthy.

"A life without burgers and fries is really depressing," Mrs. Obama said, to laughter.

"And fried chicken!" An audience member called out.

"And fried chicken!" Mrs. Obama responded, to more laughter. "And just fried," she added, to even more laughter. And she re-iterated the need to teach kids how to eat in moderation.

The students were a little wary about being queried about their opinions of Mrs. Obama and her campaign, but five different kids used the same word to describe the First Lady: "Cool."

Many had their cameras with them, and were clicking away, as well as posing for group photos with tMrs. Obama (above). Their school has a strong physical fitness program, and a model school lunch program with healthy foods. Teachers and administrators join kids at lunch tables, which has shown to be an effective strategy to get kids to try healthy foods. That's why the school earned a visit from Mrs. Obama: It's the top high school in DC, third in the tri-state region, and 37th nationally.

"Right here in Columbia Heights, you’re already well ahead of the game," Mrs. Obama said. "That’s one of the reasons why we wanted to come here...because that’s another thing about Let’s Move!, we don’t have to recreate the wheel; we have to just find the models that are already working and spread those across the country."

When the event ended, the kids were given sports bags filled with fitness goodies. Each nylon drawstring bag contained a jump rope, a DVD showing jump rope technique, a pedometer, a sports bottle, and a little booklet on healthy eating. The First Lady spent a very long time shaking hands and chatting with what seemed like almost everyone in the crowd. She left in a flurry of waves, exiting into the astonishingly hot DC afternoon, where temperatures have been hovering at close to 100 degrees for about a week. Mrs. Obama was accompanied by her Chief of Staff, Susan Sher, and Domestic Policy Adviser Jocelyn Frye.

Dawes and Edwards go on the record
As the gym cleared out, Dawes discussed her hopes for the new Council. Including nutrition as part of the mission makes perfect sense, Dawes said, and noted that it's something elite-level athletes always think about, but which regular citizens have to take very seriously, too. (Above, Dawes with Donna Richardson Joyner, another new Council member)

"What goes into your body as fuel is something everyone needs to understand," Dawes said. She praised Mrs. Obama's efforts to change school foods and encourage more PE, and said that she is very, very excited to be co-chairing the Council. She also lauded the First Lady's message about balanced eating, and the idea of "no absolute nos."

"My favorite foods are chitlins--and bread--whole grain and sourdough!" Dawes said. "But it's all about portion control. You really can eat what you want, but in small quantities--and you have to work out."

Dawes added that after she stopped competing on the Olympic level, for a brief time she'd "blown up."

"I had to change the way I ate, because I wasn't burning calories the same way," Dawes said. She also wants to follow Mrs. Obama's lead on gardening.

"Ever since Mrs. Obama planted her garden--last year--I've been saying I'm going to do one at my house," Dawes said. She lives in Maryland, and though she's been at the White House recently, she has yet to venture down to the bottom of the South Lawn to see the Kitchen Garden. But Dawes will be back at the White House on Friday, to lead the South Lawn Series, Mrs. Obama's summer initiative that opens the White House grounds to local groups for sports and fitness programs.

"I have to go see that," Dawes said about the Kitchen Garden. "And get going on my own."

NASCAR champion driver Edwards echoed Dawes' sentiments. He's currently in the top ten in the overall standings for both the Sprint Cup Series and Nationwide Series, and he said he is very excited to be appointed to the Council, too.

Edwards kicked soccer balls around the gym with the kids, who were playing "crab soccer" (above; Edwards is at left).

And if a NASCAR driver doesn't seem to make sense for the fitness Council, Edwards begs to differ.

"People don't think of drivers as people who need to be physically fit," Edwards said. "But it really improves your performance. It makes a big, big difference."

Until recently, Edwards said, most of his fellow NASCAR drivers didn't think they had to be physically fit, either.

"The guys used to make fun of me when I'd go to the gym at the track," Edwards said, adding that he started seriously working out in 2005. As he became one of the top-ranked drivers, no one was making fun of him anymore.

"Lots of the drivers are going [to the gym] now," Edwards said. "Everyone's looking for that extra competitive edge, and if working out is what gives it to you, they'll do it." He joked that he's a little sorry his fellow drivers have figured out his secret.

Edwards also appreciates Mrs. Obama's message about food--and like Dawes, he's already nutritionally savvy.

"I eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, and lots of lean meats. It really makes all the difference."

Edwards is a new father, of four month old baby Annie, and he said that it's made him re-think everything.

"I've always been very careful about choosing my NASCAR sponsors--there's a responsibility there, to your fans--but now there's even more of a reason to be careful about that, with being on the Council, and with being a dad."

Edwards added that Miracle Gro is one of his sponsors, and a vegetable garden like Mrs. Obama's is sounding very good to him, too.

"That would be something," Edwards said. "A garden. I could do that!"

Related: Transcript and video of Mrs. Obama's remarks, and bios of Council members are here.

*Photos by Obama Foodorama