Second anniversary celebration: Mrs. Obama announces big changes for Chefs Move to Schools project, & milestone for HealthierUS Schools Challenge...Dallas, TX: All three Top Chef teams competing in a cooking challenge to celebrate the second anniversary of First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign were declared winners on Friday morning, in what Top Chef host Tom Colicchio hailed as an historic "first" for the Bravo TV show. Mrs. Obama, Colicchio, and Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives Sam Kass served as judges during the event at the Kleberg Rylie Recreation Center, where the teams had half an hour to use USDA's school lunch guidelines--and budgetary constraints--to create their meals. Each team was joined by two pint-sized sous chefs selected from a local school. (Above: Colicchio, center, watches as Kass & Mrs. Obama talk with Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware as the Red Team cooks)
"I think the point in our decision is that when you've got great chefs paired with kids that are enthusiastic, and you've got schools that care, everybody is a winner," Mrs. Obama said, after huddling with Kass and Colicchio to discuss the pork chops, whole wheat turkey tacos, and veggie delights created by the chefs.
"And we sent the signal that good food doesn't have to cost a ton of money."
The non-contest was filmed by Bravo and White House video crews, and will air in the future on the Emmy-award winning Top Chef, currently in the midst of its ninth season and filming in Dallas. It was designed to be an exciting infomercial to promote the Chefs Move to Schools project, a Let's Move! component that pairs professional chefs with public schools to boost nutrition initiatives. Mrs. Obama announced changes for Chefs Move during the event.
Colicchio has been involved with Chefs Move from the beginning, and joined Mrs. Obama for the major White House launch event in June of 2010, when about 600 professional chefs gathered in their whites on the South Lawn as the First Lady announced the project. Kass appeared as a judge on a special episode of Top Chef devoted to school lunches during season seven, where the cheftestants had the same mandate: Cook a healthy school lunch with a tiny budget.
In Dallas, about 110 kids from Nancy Moseley Elementary School were invited to provide the cheering backdrop to the cooking contest, and they sat in bleachers along one wall during the event, the fourth stop on Mrs. Obama's three-day anniversary tour. Past and current Top Chef stars competed in three duos: Team Red, Grayson Schmitz and Paul Qui; Team White, DC's Spike Mendelsohn and Jennifer Carroll; and Team Blue, Fabio Viviani and Richard Blais. Dallas Cowboys tough guys DeMarcus Ware, Miles Austin, Felix Jones, and DeMarco Murray added star power, and they told the cameras what they eat to win, in addition to thrilling the kids by handing out high fives.
Changes for Chefs Move to Schools....
After announcing that everyone is a winner, the First Lady made a big announcement about the Chefs Move to Schools program. The project has been overseen by Kass and unnamed USDA officials, and now has 3,400 chefs and 3,350 schools signed on. While a great idea, Chefs Move has struggled for a variety of reasons. No more worries, according to Mrs. Obama.
"I’m pleased today to announce that we’re taking this program, the chefs program, to the next level," Mrs. Obama said.
In a savvy move, the White House has now asked the School Nutrition Association to be in charge of Chefs Move to Schools, Mrs. Obama said. The group is partnering with professional chef association the American Culinary Federation, USDA, hunger action group Share Our Strength, and Partnership for a Healthier America, the non-profit created to support the Let's Move1 campaign, as well as other groups to run the project. The coalition has a new website, now live: ChefsMovetoSchools.org. The initiative previously had a few pages on USDA's huge website.
"I’m counting on chefs and schools across the country to go to the site if they're interested, and we hope everyone is; we want them to sign up, and we want them to start cooking and working together," Mrs. Obama said.
In the past, one of the biggest problems with Chefs Move was getting the School Nutrition Association to full embrace the project. The massive professional organization is made up of more than 54,000 cafeteria managers, school nutritionists, and school cooks from across the US, and the group was so worried that the Let's Move! project would put members out of work, or force them to change food service in impossible ways, that Kass was sent to their annual convention in 2010 (which also happened to be in Dallas) to answer questions and ease the very vocal worrying.
This writer was at Kass' main meeting with members, who were both insulted by the implication that they needed the help of professional chefs, and who also feared they were being blamed for America's child obesity problem. Kass spent two whole days at the Dallas Convention Center, doing meet n' greets and making peace. USDA officials were on hand too.
Another problem: Chefs Move was also originally launched without any kind of tool kit or rubric designed to help professional chefs and schools figure out how to work together, or how to navigate the complicated bureaucracy that exists in schools and school districts. A Chefs Move tool kit was unveiled almost a year after Mrs. Obama announced the project. Major cookware companies, including All Clad, offered culinary kits to participating schools, and more than 1,000 of these have now been distributed, Mrs. Obama said on Friday.
HealthierUS Schools Challenge...
Mrs. Obama also had another big announcement on Friday. The Let's Move! team has showered a lot of attention on the Dallas Independent School District because it has the most schools in the US--154--that have been rewarded in USDA's HealthierUS Schools Challenge (HUSC), a program that promotes voluntary best practices in nutrition and fitness policy by rewarding participating schools with plaques and cash grants. Moseley is one of 78 that have been named a Gold-level winner, one of four categories for awards: Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Gold with Distinction.
"That's why we're here, because you all are really leading the way for schools," Mrs. Obamatold the cheering kids and representatives from Dallas schools.
The big news: 1,589 new schools have received certification for the HUSC for the 2011-2012 school year, meeting a goal Mrs. Obama and USDA set at the launch of Let's Move! two years ago to double the number of schools that were Challenge winners in the first year, and add 1,000 more schools each year after.
"When we set this goal, there were just 625 HealthierUS Schools around the entire country," Mrs. Obama said.
There are now 2,862 schools certified in total.
What did the chefs cook?
Unfortunately, the kids in the bleachers couldn't see much of the whiz-bang cooking action at the event, thanks to all the Top Chef camera crews buzzing around. Nor could the media, jammed behind a rope line on the other side of the room. The audio in the rec center was terrible, too. It will all sound fine when the segment appears on TV, however. (Above: Colicchio, center, Kass & Mrs. Obama watch Richard Blais and a helper cook)
The kids, who'd already been in their seats for more than an hour, had been incredibly well behaved as they waited an extra half hour for Mrs. Obama to show up to start the event.
The First Lady's grand entrance was announced twice by Kass, who served as emcee, working the floor and holding a cordless mic. Mrs. Obama didn't come through the doors either time. She was in another part of the building, filming a different TV spot.
"You see, kids?" Colicchio called out after Mrs. Obama failed to appear the second time. "This is how TV is made. It's called hurry up and wait."
The Cowbys' masked mascot, Rowdy, juggled and danced to distract the kids. When Mrs. Obama finally materialized, she of course received huge cheers, and made up for the delay by visiting with each group of kids as the chef teams cooked. Joined by Kass, she walked back and forth, asking the kids questions like "Who likes vegetables? Who's an A student? Who's going to college?"
The kids had been separated into three groups dressed in colors to match the Top Chef teams, who encouraged the kids to cheer for them. The kids happily obliged, even if they didn't know exactly what they were chanting for: The three cooking stations were at one end of the rec center, while a "pantry"--two tables laden with whole grains, baskets of fresh fruit, vegetables, breads, and paper wrapped meats--was at the other end. None of the chefs ever left their cooking stations, but the junior sous chefs occasionally dashed over to pluck an item.
The Red Team, with chefs Paul Qui and Grayson Schmitz, assisted by DeMarcus Ware, prepared whole wheat turkey tacos with a pureed melon juice. The White Team, chefs Spike Mendelsohn and Jennifer Carrol with Cowboy Miles Austin, made pork chops, homemade applesauce and roasted sweet potatoes. Blue Team chefs Fabio Viviano and Richard Blaise had two Cowboys, Felix Jones and DeMarco Murray, and made farro salad with feta, tomato and carrots simmered in fresh carrot juice.
The Top Chef segment is part of a massive TV push for Let's Move!: In recent weeks the First Lady has appeared on The Late Show with Jimmy Fallon, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Rachael Ray Show, and The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
On the campaign trail...
It can't be overlooked that the three-day, eight event tour, which has three stops in that crucial 2012 battleground state, Florida, is also a swell stump trip for President Obama's re-election effort. The two reporters the White House selected to serve as the First Lady's traveling press pool--those who travel aboard her government plane, and report back to all other reporters about what Mrs. Obama is doing--are actually assigned at their home outlets to cover President Obama: Mark Landler of The New York Times and Carol Lee of The Wall Street Journal. Neither has expended much ink on Mrs. Obama in the past, unless it had to do with her impact on the President's popularity or campaigning. (Kass looks on as Mrs. Obama hugs a student as the event ends)
The First Lady's celebration for the one year anniversary of the Let's Move! campaign was a few hours in Georgia, with Mrs. Obama visiting a church and a school. The first anniversary was a relatively long time before the November 2012 election.
In addition to Kass, the aides accompanying Mrs. Obama on the three-day tour include her Chief of Staff, Tina Tchen; top Domestic Policy Advisor, Jocelyn Frye; Communications Director, Kristina Schake; and Press Secretary Hannah August, among others. Members of the White House new media team and photographers are capturing the action. Mrs. Obama travels to Florida on Friday afternoon, and finishes up there with two events on Saturday. CLICK HERE for all posts about the First Lady's tour for the second anniversary of the Let's Move! campaign.
*The full transcript of Mrs. Obama's remarks.
*White House photos by Chuck Kennedy and Sonya N. Herbert