Thursday, January 20, 2011

Blast From the Past: Food Policy On President Obama's Inauguration Day, 2009

The campaign to replace Executive Chef Cris Comerford & other tales from the the early days...
Today, on the two-year anniversary of President Obama's inauguration, First Lady Michelle Obama announced a groundbreaking partnership with Walmart, America's largest grocery retailer. The ambitious Nutrition Charter mirrors the goals of Mrs. Obama's campaign to end childhood obesity, and it could cause a sea change in the American market place. (Top: President Obama takes the oath of office as Mrs. Obama holds the Lincoln Bible; inset is Mrs. Obama speaking today)

But just two years ago, on Inauguration Day, something like Walmart's initiative was absolutely unimaginable--as was Mrs. Obama's Let's Move! campaign.

Yet in the months between Election Day in 2008 and when the President was sworn in on Jan. 20, 2009, in a delirious arctic ceremony that millions of revelers packed the National Mall to experience, live!, he was aggressively lobbied by some of America's most noted food and nutrition advocates to use the White House as a bully pulpit for healthy foods. Thousands of concerned citizens got in on it too, petitioning the President for all kinds of changes in food policy.

>Most notably, hundreds of thousands of people signed two different petitions calling for an edible garden on the White House grounds.

>Famed restaurateurs, chefs, and food policy analysts publicly advised the President that among other things, America's school lunches needed a total revamp, food labeling needed to be improved, and food companies should be banned from selling processed foods with high sodium and fat content.

>Food safety needed a total revamp, experts and lawmakers told the President-elect.

>Some very famous foodies suggested that the President needed a Kitchen Cabinet, devoted to advising him about food issues.

>There were what amounted to calls to fire White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford, and replace her with a chef who promoted locally grown and sustainable foods, with a focus on fruit and vegetables. This built to such a head in the media that former White House Executive Chef Walter Scheib came out publicly in Comerford's defense, because she was not at liberty to speak for herself.

"They're acting like Cris is chopped liver," Scheib said, as he pointed out that Comerford was a genius in the kitchen, who already had a focus on healthy foods, even if those outside the White House had no idea what that entailed.

Comerford, obviously, was not fired. But there was a collective groan of despair in the food world when Mrs. Obama's spokesman announced on January 9, 2009, that Mrs. Obama would be retaining Comerford as Executive Chef.

On Inauguration Day 2009, no one imagined that Mrs. Obama would make food policy a centerpiece of her portfolio as First Lady, or that someone named Sam Kass existed, to create and coordinate food policy "initiatives." No one imagined that four months after moving into the White House, Mrs. Obama would break ground for the now-globally famous Kitchen Garden. (Kass, above)

A month ago, the President signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act into law, which provides sweeping changes to America's school lunch and breakfast programs. No one could have imagined that on Inauguration Day 2009.

No one imagined two years ago that Pigford, the longstanding racial discrimination suit brought by black farmers against USDA, would be settled with a $1.15 billion agreement.

No one imagined that the most groundbreaking food safety legislation in 70 years would be passed, and the President would sign it into law.

No one imagined that USDA would run know Your Farmer, Know Your Food, or that Kathleen Merrigan might become Deputy Ag Secretary.

No one imagined that the White House Kitchen might turn into the culinary version of Grand Central Station, with more guest chefs than can be counted trekking through and cooking.

And how about that White House Bee Hive, by the way?

On Inauguration Day 2009, no one could have imagined that the President and First Lady would host a State Dinner, as they did last night, which had a menu that highlighted locally sourced foods, food access and affordability, as well as used crops from the First Lady's own Kitchen Garden. Comerford cooked that meal last night. (Above: The President and First Lady greet China's President Hu Jintao for the State Dinner)

But perhaps the most unimaginable event of the past two years is the Let's Move! campaign itself, with its outreach to millions of Americans, its sweeping series of initiatives, its focus on every element of the food chain, from growing food to eating. And the fact that Mrs. Obama and the White House chefs--including the once highly suspect Cris Comerford--would regularly be engaging with kids at the White House, in the kitchen and in the garden. As well as outside the White House: Mrs. Obama traveled the country last year, to spread the word about Let's Move!. Kass did, too. Closer to home, Comerford and Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses have adopted DC's Tubman Elementary School as part of Chefs Move To Schools, another historic initiative started in 2010.

Inauguration Day seems like a long time ago now. But compared with all that Mrs. Obama and her team have accomplished, it's the blink of an eye. And the Walmart compact has come less than one year after the Let's Move! campaign was formally launched, on February 9, 2010.

It's been a pretty astonishing two years, plain and simple.

*Photos by EGK/; top photo by Getty