The First Lady's Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives talks about campaign achievements, challenges, and criticism...
"We've seen unprecedented movement in less than two years" for First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign, Sam Kass, Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives told Obama Foodorama. In a wide-ranging interview, Kass declared that the First Lady's signature initiative is "having a tremendous impact." He also discussed his favorite moments of 2011, ongoing criticism of the campaign, and details about the third and what could be the final year of Let's Move!, which begins in February. (Kass, above)
Now 31, Kass was just 28 when he arrived at the White House with President Obama and Mrs. Obama. He is the architect for many elements of the sweeping national campaign, but he has no delusions about the incredible challenges involved in achieving the First Lady's ambitious goals. Kass is the first to admit that childhood obesity is a complex problem, with a complicated and interconnected set of origins, from genetics through cultural influences.
"It took us decades to get into this, and it's going to take us decades to get out," Kass said. "We have a really long way to go--and the First Lady is in it for the long haul."
Mrs. Obama is hoping for nothing short of a society-wide paradigm shift in protecting child health and ending childhood obesity, something she believes is not only critical to returning America to its former position of global superstar--but which can also be a source of community revitalization and job creation. It's also key to improving educational achievement, and protecting national security, aides frequently point out: Some 27% of military recruits fail to qualify for service due to obesity. Let's Move! is good for America, plain and simple, according to the White House, from business through defense initiatives. (Above: Mrs. Obama and Kass during a White House event)
The campaign has a very long time frame, with an ultimate goal of reducing the current level of childhood obesity--about 17%--to just 5% by the year 2030. Thus Let's Move! was designed with multiple entry points and has a widely varied series of components, so a series of seemingly small steps will have a huge, concerted impact.
"I could never have predicted the amount of change and commitment that would have been announced in 2011," Kass said.
But he noted that it's exactly the kind of response Mrs. Obama hoped for with her call to action.
2011 for Let's Move!: Major private sector partnerships and grassroots efforts...
Literally millions of people joined Let's Move! last year, from families and children to sports legends such as Billie Jean King and Drew Brees, and teen TV stars, including those from Nickelodeon and Disney. Popstar Beyonce re-wrote one of her songs for the campaign, and had students from more than 600 middle schools across the US dancing during a national work-out session. The video has now gotten more than 15 million hits on YouTube.
2011 saw an outpouring of private sector support, and Kass using the word "unprecedented" isn't hyperbole. Because while the campaign incorporates small steps, the commitments announced in 2011 were major. America's largest grocer, Walmart, led the way with the Nutrition Charter, a five-year plan that includes pledges to build markets in food deserts, work with suppliers to reformulate thousands of food products, reduce the price point for fruit and vegetables, and create a front-of-pack nutrition label for food products.
"Walmart has pledged to reduce the costs of fruit and vegetables by a billion dollars in one year," Kass said. "These are efforts that are going to have a huge impact."
The company has more than 140 million customers weekly, and Executive Vice President for Corporate Affairs Leslie Dach has announced that "Walmart moms" are already seeing changes in stores.
The nation's largest pharmacy chain, Walgreens, and other grocery chains joined Walmart in a pledge to improve food access and affordability, committing to build or revamp 1,500 grocery markets to help achieve a centerpiece Let's Move! goal of eliminating all US food deserts by 2017. Congress approved $32 million for the Healthy Food Financing Initiative for FY 2012, a program designed to further the effort to eradicate food deserts. In October, Kass and Mrs. Obama traveled to Chicago for the first Let's Move! Food Desert Summit, which broguht together Mayors from across the US to discuss Let's Move! initiatives in their cities. More food desertcommitments were announced in November. (Above: Mrs. Obama speaking at the food desert announcement)
Darden Restaurants, Inc., the largest casual dining chain in the US, serving more than 400 million meals annually, announced a series of menu changes across its brands (including Olive Garden and Red Lobster), which includes making fruit and vegetables a default side and lowering calories and sodium across all menus. Hyatt Hotels recently announced a similar commitment for its thousands of venues.
America's largest private-sector childcare companies have signed on to Let's Move Childcare, to bring healthy eating and fitness initiatives to the pre-school sector, as well as to promote breastfeeding, a key way to insulate children against childhood obesity. Kaiser Permanente pledged to make 29 hospitals "baby friendly," which will also include a focus on breastfeeding support.
"We've seen tremendous progress in all stakeholders coming together to make real strides," Kass said. "These are efforts that start to really add up."
There has also been important work at the federal level that's key to the campaign and the culture-wide shift it is creating. Mrs. Obama championed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act 2010, which retools the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs. In 2011, Let's Move! enrolled 1,631 public schools in the HealthierUS School Challenge, a USDA program that rewards schools participating in the federal meal programs for best practices in nutrition and fitness initiatives. Last summer, Mrs. Obama joined USDA officials to announce the MyPlate initiative, a graphic icon and healthy eating campaign built around the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
"MyPlate completely transforms the government's perspective and view on how to think about healthy meals," Kass said. "And does it in a way that's applicable to what it means to eat."
"That's all about cooking. That's a big deal."
Kass and White House Executive Chef Cris Comerford appeared on national television in 2011 to demonstrate easy, family friendly MyPlate recipes, and there will be more MyPlate initiatives in the year ahead. There are now more than 5,000 organizations participating in USDA's MyPlate Nutrition Communicators Network.
In addition to the tent pole commitments and projects that garner headlines, there has been plenty of other Let's Move activity.
"There's the big announcements you see onstage with the First Lady," Kass said. "But there is so much more work being done on the ground at the grassroots level."
"We've seen gardens springing up all over the country. We've seen cooking programs everywhere and chefs playing an increased roll in educating people. We're seeing science teachers building gardens to teach kids about healthy eating. We're seeing parents deciding you know what, we're going to take our kids out today and we're going to go run for a half an hour."
Chefs Move to Schools, which marries professional chefs to schools, now has close to 4,000 chefs enrolled, according to Kass, who along with the other White House chefs has adopted his own school, Harriet Tubman Elementary in Washington, DC. Entire communities have joined the campaign, through Let's Move Cities and Towns. Many, many groups and private sector partners have been invited to the White House to discuss their projects and how they can join the campaign.
"When you put all the initiatives together, there's just no question that there's nothing that comes close to the amount of movement," Kass said.
The First Lady's Kitchen Garden remains a favorite part of his job, Kass said. The 1,500 square foot plot produced more than 2,500 pounds of vegetables in 2011, used for everything from the First Family's meals to State Dinners. About a third of the crops are donated to local social services agency Miriam's Kitchen to be used for meals for DC's neediest. The garden grows through the winter, thanks to protective hoop houses. Harvests and plantings include school students each time. (Above: Mrs. Obama and Kass with a young helper during the 3 Sisters Harvest and Planting)
"The garden is a true highlight every year," Kass said. In addition to all his policy work, Kass still cooks for the First Family when he's not away from the White House being the ambassador for the campaign.
Mrs. Obama's book about the garden, American Grown, will be published this April. Pretty much guaranteed to be a bestseller, the book will ensure healthy eating and gardening remain in the headlines.
Kass traveled around the US visiting food and policy conferences and groups in 2011, and deemed November's first-ever national childhood obesity conference from Partnership for a Healthier America, the non-profit created to support the campaign, as one of his personal highlights for 2011. More than 800 child health advocates, businesses, academics, medical professionals, and elected officials met in in Washington for the two-day conference.
"Not talking about the issue, but taking action on the issue was a really fantastic moment," Kass said.
Kass emceed a culinary competition, the Great American Family Dinner Challenge during the conference, and said the seemingly uncomfortable moments onstage when six-year-old judge Austin Jackson repeatedly spit out the healthy but delicious offerings created by four James Beard Award-winning chefs, including Top Chef host Tom Colicchio, was another favorite moment of 2011.
"I loved that little kid," Kass said. "What Austin showed us is this stuff isn't easy. It takes commitment on behalf of parents to really work with their kids to ensure they're getting the vegetables they need. It's hard."
Through The Looking Glass: Campaign criticism...
Still, despite all the achievements, the criticism of the First Lady for the campaign--and personally--was relentless in 2011. It had a Through The Looking Glass feel: Mrs. Obama is either doing too little or too much, depending on who is doing the criticizing. Those who lean conservative dislike what they perceive as Mrs. Obama's effort to exert Big Government control over what is apparently a Constitutionally protected freedom to consume unhealthy food. Mrs. Obama has been called a Food Nazi, the Food Police, and worse. "No Fries For You!" screamed the headline on Drudge Report when Mrs. Obama joined Darden executives to announce the Let's Move! collaboration.
What the First Lady eats privately routinely makes for excoriating headlines, which often include speculative calorie counts for her meals at restaurants, and meals served to White House guests. But this can be seen as a sign of progress for the campaign: It indicates that large media entities believe that Mrs. Obama has raised the nation's nutritional awareness enough that the average reader actually understands what daily caloric intake should be. What other First Lady in history has been married in headlines to calorie counts?
And then there are people like Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), who recently blamed his derogatory comments about Mrs. Obama's posterior on a dislike of the Let's Move! campaign. There's simply no explaining that kind of willingness to bash a Presidential spouse.
Those who are ostensibly healthy food advocates have criticized Mrs. Obama for not doing enough. She's repeatedly chastised for partnering with Big Food corporations, especially with Walmart, which was the subject of intense protests before Mrs. Obama came on the scene. A popular yet incredible idea seems to be that because Mrs. Obama has encouraged gardening and sourcing from local farmers, her campaign will be meaningless until she is willing to throw her considerable influence into driving major national food corporations permanently out of business. (Above: Mrs. Obama speaking to more than 1,000 school representatives invited to the White House to celebrate the success of HealthierUS Schools Challenge)
The criticism from food advocates reached a nadir in November, when Mrs. Obama announced that Let's Move! will have a renewed focus on physical fitness in 2012. She was vilified for "caving in" to food corporations, with critics claiming that highlighting the importance of physical fitness meant she was giving up on efforts to ensure that America's children eat healthier food.
Entirely untrue, said Kass. The focus on physical fitness in 2012 comes after two years of devoting most of the campaign attention to food and nutrition initiatives. Kids are still spending an average of seven hours in front of various media screens, and "focusing a significant amount of energy on physical activity" from the campaign is a must, Kass said.
"That's a critical component of kids being healthy. But of course we're going to always strive to improve the health and nutrition of food served to young people."
Still, after two years of such criticism, Kass is sanguine about it all.
"I can't go on the record about misinformed opinions," Kass said. "But what I do know is the First Lady has dedicated the past two years to improving the health of the nation's kids."
"She's made it very clear that this is an issue she will continue to work on while she is in the White House--and for the rest of her life."
Against the backdrop of the noisy criticism, Mrs. Obama was named to Time magazine's 2011 list of 100 Most Influential People in the World for the Let's Move! campaign. She was also one of the inaugural honorees for the James Beard Foundation's Sustainable Leadership Awards, and Michael Pollan named her the "World's Most Powerful Foodie" in Forbes magazine. Kass was named to Fast Company magazine's 2011 list of the "100 Most Creative People in Business" thanks to the White House Walmart partnership. He is #11 on the list of genius executives, impresarios and artisans who are transforming the world.
The year ahead for Let's Move!...
Even if President Obama loses the election next November, the Let's Move! campaign will continue, thanks to Partnership for a Healthier America. But it will no longer be centered in the White House. So Let's Move! will grow even larger this year, Kass said. The many sub-components that have already been launched will become more detailed.
"We'll see deepening and expanding of existing programs," Kass said.
"We've got really solid platforms with Chefs Move, with Let's Move Faith and Communities, Let's Move Cities and Towns, and we're going to be working to deepen the impact and expand the reach of those programs."
There will be more private sector partnerships, managed by Partnership for a Healthier America, which monitors these commitments.
"I can't predict what companies are going to come to the table and what companies aren't," Kass said. "But we're going to continue to work towards these goals and see who steps up this year to become part of the solution."
USDA is expected to release its final nutritional guidelines for the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act this month, and despite recent Congressional measures that deregulated both potato and tomato usage in school cafeterias, Kass is not overly worried. In October, under much pressure from lobbyists and big food corporations, Congress mandated that potatoes and other starchy vegetables can be served in schools in unrestricted quantities each week; USDA had proposed restricting these this to once weekly, to make more room for dark green and dark orange vegetables on cafeteria menus. In November, Congress officially made pizza sauce "a vegetable."
"In the end the nutrition standards are going to be raised significantly," Kass said.
"There will be more resources for schools, and we're going to be well on our way to really dramatically improving school lunch."
The First Lady recently vowed to take "bold steps" to ensure the child nutrition legislation is implemented properly.
As for the President's re-election campaign impacting the amount of time Mrs. Obama can devote to Let's Move! in 2012? Kass said he is not concerned that Mrs. Obama will be out on the campaign trail. Nor is he worried that her other national campaign, Joining Forces, will reduce Mrs. Obama's Let's Move! efforts.
"She's going to continue to do everything she can to help make the healthy choice the easy choice and to make better health for kids the norm in this country," Kass said.
"Let's Move Boldly" could be the campaign's new slogan for 2012. Stay tuned....
Related: Read this pocket guide to the Let's Move! campaign, which explains the five pillars that constitute the Administration's childhood obesity initiatives. Download the full White House Childhood Obesity Task Force Report [PDF], which is the framework for the campaign.
*Photos by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama