Friday, June 10, 2011

'Fast Company' Event: Kass Talks Childhood Obesity And White House Homebrewing

In New York City, the Senior Policy Advisor challenges the private sector to take the lead in First Lady's Let's Move! campaign...and waxes poetic about his love of beer...
Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives Sam Kass was in New York City on Thursday afternoon to speak at Fast Company magazine's social action conference, held to celebrate the 2011 100 Most Creative People in Business list. Kass is #11 on the list of genius executives, impresarios and artisans who are transforming the world with unusual approaches, and he gave a talk on how businesses can take the lead in ending childhood obesity with First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign. He also chatted about White House homebrewing, because another genius on the list is Sam Calagione, founder of Delaware's Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, and he was among the conference speakers, too. (Above: Kass poses with the conference speakers; he's at right in suit and tie, and Calagione is behind him, in the white shirt)

Kass was named to the Fast Company list thanks to his work lining up an impressive series of private sector commitments for the White House obesity battle--chief among these the partnership with global grocery giant Walmart, which created the Nutrition Charter, a five-year plan that includes a pledge to make fruit and vegetables more affordable, and to cut sugar, salt and fat across all its product lines, as well as to drop the prices on premium "healthy" foods. Mrs. Obama cheered the partnership as "a victory for folks all across America" when she joined Walmart executives to announce the project in January (above).

During his conference remarks to a crowd of digitally savvy social activists and entrepreneurs, Kass spoke about the Walmart partnership, and hailed the private sector as the key to ending the childhood obesity epidemic. He threw out a call to action, asking all on hand to use their ingenuity and creativity to help the First Lady solve the problem of childhood obesity in a generation. The private sector has "key levers to pull" to end childhood obesity, Kass has said.

"One third of kids and and two thirds of adults in the US are obese," Kass told the crowd, adding that obesity is the number one threat to national security.

"Twenty-seven percent of candidates get turned down from the U.S. military because of obesity," Kass said, citing Army statistics that Mrs. Obama was briefed on when she visited South Carolina's Fort Jackson, which expends an astonishing amount of resources to whip recruits into shape before they can even attempt to qualify for service in the armed forces.

"How do you make the healthiest choice the easiest choice?" Kass challenged the crowd.

Kass spends as much time these days wooing businesses to join the Let's Move! campaign as he does cooking; on Tuesday, during the State Dinner for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Kass blew into the White House late in the afternoon, wearing a dark suit and tie, briefcase in hand. An hour later, he was in his whites with the other chefs, setting up an outdoor staging area for the dessert course for the elegant dinner. Even that was in service to the First Lady's campaign: Dubbed a Spring Harvest Dinner, it spotlighted healthy and fresh food, with crops from Mrs. Obama's Kitchen Garden front and center on the menu. (Above: Kass at another recent public event, speaking about how food entrepreneurs can join Let's Move!)

The same kinds of healthy foods will be offered in American schools, Kass told the Fast Company audience; Mrs. Obama and her team were behind the charge that led to Congress passing the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act 2010, which fundamentally alters school nutrition policy and has created sweeping changes in cafeterias across the US.

"You won't even recognize school lunches in a few years from what they are today," Kass said.

But despite the successes of the Let's move! campaign, Kass said, the First Lady is well aware that "you can't write a bill that ends childhood obesity."

Everyone has a role to play, Kass said, and businesses have to be aggressively on board, following the lead of Walmart. USDA's new MyPlate food icon is rapidly being embraced by the private sector, Kass noted. The public health sector is getting very creative, too, Kass told the crowd: Pediatricians are now actually writing prescriptions for things like eating more vegetables and exercising.

Kass on White House brewing, and an invitation for Calagione...
Kass and the other White House chefs are the first-ever homebrewers in White House history, and the ongoing experiment is reportedly creating better beers with each batch. The first brew at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was a White House Honey Ale for the President's Super Bowl party, made with honey from the on-grounds Beehive. (Above: The bottle label for the first White House brew)

Kass chatted with Dogfish's Sam Calagione, as he spoke at the brainstorming session. Calagione's business has seen major growth thanks to the unusual creations he offers (the brewery's motto: "off-centered ales for off-centered people"), and the two Sams discussed the wonders of beer making.

Kass announced that the White House chefs have just brewed a batch of Honey Porter.

"We just tasted the honey porter yesterday, which was unbelievably good, if I do say so myself," Kass said. "We have no idea what we're doing--we're just experimenting, so anytime you want to come for a visit and give us some pointers, we'd be more than happy."

"What herbs and spices are you and Michelle growing in the garden?" Calagione asked Kass.

"Only legal ones," said Kass, to big laughter from the audience.

And no, he said, hops are not among the crops in the First Lady's Kitchen Garden, though they are legal to grow.

"I want to have a beer with both of you!" An audience member called out to Kass and Calagione.

Kass invited Calagione to the White House for a visit, and some brewing advice; homebrew will again be served at an upcoming public White House event. Calagione has written two books about brewing, and he happily accepted the invitation.

The visit will have to be worked into Kass' busy schedule: He's spending the summer in a business suit on the road, making more appearances for the Let's Move! campaign.

Video: Kass talks about the private sector & obesity...
Last week, Kass appeared on via satellite on CNBC's Wall Street Journal Report to discuss being named to the 100 list, where he appears ahead of Oprah Winfrey, and in company with Al Jazeera chief Wadah Khanfar; Conan O'brien; Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey; and Yuri Milner, the Russian venture capitalist behind Groupon, among others. The full list is here.

Kass was in New York last week, too, appearing on the Today show and on Good Morning America, demonstrating healthy White House recipes in conjunction with the MyPlate campaign.

*Kass/First Lady photos by Eddie Gehman Kohan/ObamaFoodorama; label photo by Pete Souza/White House