Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Sam Kass Is Not The Only Chef Policy Wonk In The Obama Administration

As the Let's Move! campaign approaches its six month anniversary, chefs as policy advisers has become standard practice...
The news first posted here that White House assistant chef Sam Kass has been promoted from being First Lady Michelle Obama's Food Initiative Coordinator to Senior Policy Adviser For Healthy Food Initiatives flew around the Internet like a grease fire.

It received notice in every major media outlet, and showed up as far away as India. On July 16, it also earned Kass his first-ever headline on Drudge Report, in which he was dubbed President Obama's "health food Czar."

That particular meme is still getting plenty of play in the blogosphere, as critics assault the promotion of "Obama family cook" Kass, as well as the very idea of a chef becoming a Senior Policy Adviser at the White House. New postings about the subject--all with the identical outraged info bytes, in a case of digital telephone--are still going on. (Above: Kass and Mrs. Obama in the Kitchen garden)

Little of the scathing commentary has anything to do with food or policy, or Kass' actual experience and expertise on the issues, but is simply another opportunity to bash the President and his administration.

Many critics seem entirely unaware that there are now many other chefs who are working in and with the Obama administration as advisers, too, in particular with the East Wing (though most don't have a nice title). The White House has been willing to embrace an a-typical population of experts, and it stands to change the obesogenic fabric of American culture. Just short of six months into the Let's Move! campaign, which launched in February, Kass' dual role as cook and wonk has been so successful that it's been replicated. Chef as policy wonk has emerged as not just a one-off with Kass, but a policy unto itself. Policy watchers have lauded the development, and Mrs. Obama and her campaign have been embraced by public health advocates and professionals--and parents, and lawmakers and local and state government officials, and school administrators and teachers, sport associations, and the medical community, to name just some of the very interested parties.

Chefs with formal titles...
Two giants of the American foodscape, chefs José Andrés of Washington, DC, and Dan Barber of New York, are now doing official duty as administration appointees. Barber was just appointed as the only chef to serve on the newly revamped President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, and Andrés has been appointed by Commerce Secretary Gary Locke as the only chef to serve on the US Travel and Tourism Advisory Board.

The redesigned President's Council is an important component of the Let's Move! campaign, and for the first time includes food as part of its mission; in earlier administrations, it used to just be the President's Council on Physical Fitness. As a Council Member, Barber, who owns and cooks at Blue Hill restaurant in New York, will be critically involved in developing nutrition and fitness policy recommendations in concert with other high-profile experts (Olympians, doctors, fitness experts, sports stars), and it's certainly not his first foray into policy making. In addition to being deeply involved with Stone Barns Food and Agriculture Center in New York, this year Barber spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. One of his topics: How chefs lead change in America. Barber joined Mrs. Obama in Washington on June 24, as she introduced the new Council. (Above: The First Lady with kids and Barber at the event)

Andrés is from Spain but has lived in DC since the late 1990s, and he owns a veritable empire of DC restaurants (and one in Los Angeles). His formal policy role in the administration is very different than Barber's: For the Department of Commerce, Andrés is charged with coming up with ideas to help woo offshore cash to America, by thinking up ways to encourage foreigners to come visit. His position has big implications for job sustainability and creation, and boosting the American economy--something that is central to the Obama presidency. It also reinforces the inarguable importance of food and agriculture to both culture and commerce.

Andrés has also been very involved with Let's Move!, too, as an adviser, and as an ambassador--he's joined Kass on local school visits to promote nutrition, as well as worked behind the scenes on the initiative, and he's guest cheffed at White House events (more on Andrés' career, below).

Dr. Marion Nestle, who is Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, as well as the author of important books on food policy and politics (read her blog Food Politics), deems chefs as policy makers a welcome development.

"These are not ordinary chefs who confine their influence to the kitchen," Dr. Nestle said. "These are chefs who have gone beyond the stove to promote—through speaking, writing, and action--a system of food production and consumption that is healthier for people and the planet."

Both Andrés and Barber have logged plenty of time doing just that, advocating for complicated changes in agriculture, economic and health policy--all under the rubric of food, and not just in America, but around the globe (Andrés' latest project is getting solar ovens to Haiti). Both are highly influential. All that experience is being put to good use by the White House, for what Mrs. Obama said she hopes will be the legacy she leaves behind when her time there is over.

Marian Burros, a legendary food writer for the New York Times who is now also the White House correspondent for Rodale publications, has covered politics--food and otherwise--inside the Beltway for more than three decades. She's closely monitored the food and Ag activity in the Obama administration, and deems the use of chefs as policy makers as a turning point for both American culture and politics.

"Chefs helping make policy signals that the importance of food has come of age," Burros said. "It's about time. Food is one thing we all have in common, regardless of political affiliation."

More chefs who are helping change national policy...
But chefs as policy wonks in the Obama administration doesn't stop with Andrés and Barber. During the past few months, at the behest of the East Wing, other high profile chefs have signed on to be policy ambassadors for Mrs. Obama. These include Top Chef host and restaurateur Tom Colicchio, global brand Rachael Ray, and Food Network's Ellie Krieger.

Each has testified on Capitol Hill, advocating for better child nutrition legislation, which is a centerpiece of the Let's Move! campaign, and impacts about 32 million children. Colicchio even devoted an episode of his highly popular TV show to school lunch, which featured Kass as a guest judge. They've each guest cheffed at the White House, too, and helped promote Let's Move! in other ways. (Colicchio testifying before the House Education & Labor Committee, above)

The East Wing has made savvy use of food TV in general. Kass and Executive Chef Cris Comerford and Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses have appeared in different combinations on NBC's The Biggest Loser, Food Network's Iron Chef America, and The Martha Stewart Show, in addition to making morning show appearances and holiday show appearances. It's reinforced Mrs. Obama's message that healthy eating doesn't mean no pleasure, something Mrs. Obama repeats often, as she defends burgers and fries while noting simultaneously that "dessert is not a right," and urging healthy eating. It's a fairly complicated message, that will need to be repeated over and over.

Other high-profile chefs who have become very involved with the campaign include Marcus Samulesson (also guest chef for the first State Dinner, and now starring in a Let's Move! video with Ray) Cat Cora (guest chef for the White House reception for Greek Independence Day; she recently appeared on MSNBC's Morning Joe with Kass to discuss child nutrition legislation), and Art Smith, who demonstrated healthy foods at the 2010 White House Easter Egg Roll, and who is now focusing his own non-profit foundation, Common Threads, on Let's Move! initiatives.

Dr. Nestle points out that chefs come with a series of skills possessed by no other policy advisers who have previously worked with the federal government.

"They know and love food and have enormous insight into what people really like to eat," Dr. Nestle said. "That’s a perspective that can be enormously helpful in attempts to improve personal dietary choices and in developing policies that will make healthier choices easier."

In addition to the nutrition and "delicious" angle, chefs also have first-hand experience with dealing with food access and affordability, and what it really takes to get food from farm to table, in a way few other policy wonks inside the Beltway do. They're also masterminds at food safety, another important area of policy at the White House.

Citizen chefs as grassroots policy advisers
The chefs who have signed on to be part of Mrs. Obama's Chefs Move To Schools project--about 1,300 as of two weeks ago--are essentially a citizen brigade of best-practice policy advisers, too. If the program gets going as expected, the chefs will be messaging and demonstrating healthy food policy on the grass roots level, as they work with their local school systems. (Above: The view of the South Lawn during the launch of Chefs Move)

And the Chefs Move project itself was designed with the help of a group of citizen chef advisers enlisted by the First Lady's Office, including Baltimore's Tony Geraci and New Haven's Tim Cipriano, who each lead the food service divisions of their local school systems, and serve meals to thousands of children each day. Restaurant chefs were in the advisory group too, including Andrés, as well as Todd Gray of Equinox, Spike Mendelsohn of Good Stuff Eatery and Robert Wiedmaier of Brasserie Beck, all of DC; New York's Bill Telepan of Telepan restaurant; Cathal Armstrong of Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, Virginia; and Michel Nischan of Dressing Room in Westport, Conn.

Burros noted that when she first began writing about food, it was in "Style" and "Food" sections in print media--and had nothing to do with policy.

"I can't write about food now without also writing about policy, much of the time," Burros said, and added that this has increased as Mrs. Obama's campaign has gotten going. Even her restaurant reviews now include some element of food policy, as there is an expectation that she will note use of organic products or sustainable practices or local sourcing, Burros said--all of which are entwined with the Obama administration's USDA policy.

The Con upset about Kass will no doubt continue, but it's a testament to the paradigm shift that Mrs. Obama is causing in the nation's relationship with food that his promotion is getting so much attention. The First Lady's exhausting schedule of appearances for the campaign, combined with the army of White jacketed advisers and ambassadors, has helped boost Mrs. Obama's national conversation about food and health into the mainstream far more rapidly than could have been predicted. As Let's Move! continues to roll out, with more projects coming in the months ahead, the attention will only increase.

More on Barber and Andrés...
Andrés is world renowned for his cookbooks, his many eateries (in DC and outside it), and his PBS TV series, Made In Spain. He's become close with the Obama White House, and was one of the very first guest chefs to cook there, when he demo'd healthy recipes in the Kids Kitchen during the April, 2009 White House Easter Egg Roll. He's guest cheffed many other times, including for a private lunch for President Obama and King Juan Carlos I of Spain, which he absolutely refuses to discuss; he is the model of discretion. Andrés was at the launch of Chefs Move To Schools, too, and joined Mrs. Obama at the special Kitchen Garden Harvest and Picnic. He's adopted his own local school to mentor, and has worked on food policy and hunger initiatives for years, as a member of the Board of Directors of DC Central Kitchen.

Barber is the chef/restaurateur of New York's Blue Hill restaurants (there are two: One in Greenwich Village and one at Stone Barns Food and Agriculture Center in New York), and in 2009 he was named to the Time 100 list of the world's most influential people. In the same year, he was also named the James Beard Foundation's Outstanding American Chef. He's a major advocate for local and organic agriculture, and is on the board of Stone Barns. He's widely published, and has his hand in all kinds of other policy projects. The President and Mrs. Obama, incidentally, enjoyed a Date Night dinner in 2009 at Barber's Blue Hill restaurant in Greenwich Village.

*Updated.

*Photos by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama