Friday, February 10, 2012

Food Politics: Behind The Scenes At First Lady Michelle Obama's Olive Garden Dinner

First Lady spreads the word about health and fitness...and gets in some 2012 campaigning, too...
Fort Worth, TX: "Hello! Who's ready for dinner?" First Lady Michelle Obama sang on Thursday evening as she made an unceremonious entrance through the back door emergency exit of an Olive Garden restaurant located in the remote corner of a sprawling shopping mall on Rain Lily Trail. She was followed by Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives Sam Kass and a string of aides. The third event on the multi-state tour for the second anniversary of Let's Move!, the dinner with eight locals was the first Mrs. Obama has ever hosted for her campaign. It was modeled after the popular "Dinner with Barack" fundraisers created by Obama for America, which had President Obama raffling himself off during the 2011 fund raising cycle as a dinner date for four strangers. Those dinners were filmed by White House videographers for campaign materials, and Mrs. Obama's was filmed, too. (Above: Mrs. Obama with her guests; aides are seated at the far table)

The Let's Move! tour is one of the longest solo trips Mrs. Obama has had as First Lady, and is also in service to the 2012 re-election: Four of the eight scheduled events are in the battleground state of Florida. Mrs. Obama was last in Florida for a Let's Move! event--and two fundraisers--on Jan. 26, during the week when GOP presidential hopefuls were rampaging around the state ahead of the selection primary. In a Friday interview with reporters traveling with her, Mrs. Obama admitted that her three-day celebration is indeed a boon for her husband's re-election bid.

"This is a bit of a two-fer," Mrs. Obama said of the tour. "Because it's an issue that I care about, and it's an issue that's important to the country. ...I want to make sure that what I do enhances him."

That "enhancing" is palpable: Let's Move! gives new meaning to the term "food politics." The campaign embroiders the top notes of President Obama's pledge to "Strengthen America," the White House catch-phrase since the State of the Union Address. If obesity can be reduced or eliminated, Mrs. Obama is promising a healthier, brighter, more competitive future for America's chief asset, its children. The campaign, Mrs. Obama says, is a must for academic achievement, and for national security, too, thanks to a high incidence of obesity (an estimated 27%) in prospective military recruits.

The Let's Move! focus on making healthier foods "more affordable and accessible" --a key pillar of the campaign--is an election season boon for the President, who, according to polls, is being judged by voters chiefly on the (under) performance of the economy. The many citizens struggling to put dinner on the table can't help but be thrilled when Mrs. Obama announces that she's gotten private sector grocery corporations--including Walmart, which feeds 140 million shoppers weekly--to commit to reduce their prices on fruit and vegetables.* Nor can voters ignore that the expected 250-300 grocery markets that will be built in communities as part of the pledge to eliminate every US "food desert" by 2017 will also create jobs. Lowering the unemployment rate is crucial for the President's re-election bid.

The six women and two men invited to join Mrs. Obama at the Olive Garden didn't have to donate to the re-election war chest to enjoy their dinner with the First Lady, but they will do a good job of spreading the good word about the Administration's efforts to strengthen America with Let's Move!. All were parents involved in child health projects, and they were hand-picked by the White House. After the dinner, they spoke glowingly to members of the media during a parking lot de-briefing, describing their conversation with the First Lady, which included Mrs. Obama discussing her husband.

The Olive Garden restaurant was chosen to spotlight parent company Darden Restaurant, Inc.'s commitment to change its menus for the Let's Move! campaign. The guests were already seated around a long wooden table as Mrs. Obama arrived shortly after 6:00 PM, having just flown in to Love Field in Dallas. She was clad in her third outfit of the day: A cropped navy blue crackled leather jacket, a long scarf with a colorful geometric pattern, and navy pants. She quickly removed scarf and jacket, revealing a popping pink sweater and a red and black top.

Texans apparently have a unique take on manners: The guests did not stand as the First Lady entered the dining room, which was decorated with black and white "vintage" photos and faux Italian urns. Instead, Mrs. Obama worked her way around the table, which was laden with deep, family-style bowls of fresh salad greens. She greeted each seated guest with a full-on hug, accomplished by bending down from the waist and wrapping her arms around the lucky recipient.

"Nice to see you," Mrs. Obama said again and again.

Mrs. Obama's party was screened off from the rest of the eatery by floor-to-ceiling black drapes, which billowed around the members of her security detail who were posted on the side that could be approached by very curious members of the public: The restaurant was open for business. Patrons who were not invited to Mrs. Obama's dinner buzzed about the First Lady's presence; they'd been wanded and screened before being allowed to sit and order from the menu of bottomless pasta bowls and all-you-can-eat breadsticks. Adding to the excitement: Mrs. Obama's private dining room was located along the single hallway that led to the restrooms, providing an excellent excuse for plenty of curious onlookers to attempt to peek in. They were tersely rebuffed by dark-suited Secret Service agents and Darden staff.

Kass, clad in a white button down shirt and jeans, was jacketless and tieless, and worked his way through the gang of photographers and videographers who were allowed to film the opening moments of the dinner. Carrying a handful of note cards, Kass sat down in the center of the table across from where the First Lady would eventually land, her last hug handed out.

The menu...
Darden Restaurants, Inc. is the largest full-service chain in the world, and also parent to the Red Lobster and other iconic restaurant brands. Last September, Mrs. Obama hailed the company's pledge to reduce calories and sodium in their meals and to provide healthier options in their kids’ menus as "a breakthrough moment in the restaurant industry." Senior Vice President for Culinary and Beverage Service Julie Elkinton joined Mrs. Obama at a Maryland Olive Garden for that announcement, and she was in Ft. Worth, too. As the meal began, Elkinton stood at the corner of the table and showed Mrs. Obama and her guests a prototype for the new kids' menu, and gave a quick progress report (above).

Then it was time to eat. Waiters moved in to pour water: Evian or Pellegrino, from bottles on the table. Mrs. Obama chose the still water.

"I hope you're hungry. I'm starving," Mrs. Obama said, as she passed a bowl of salad.

She'd flown close to 2,000 miles on Thursday, not to mention dancing "The Interlude" on a stadium stage in Iowa, surrounded by politicians, celeb sports stars and 14,000 kids for a massive Let's Move! birthday party that spotlighted the state's efforts, started five years ago, to make Iowa the healthiest state in the nation. The First Lady had also joined Pentagon officials in Little Rock, Arkansas as they unveiled pathbreaking changes to Defense Department food service, another win for the campaign.

The special three-course menu for Mrs. Obama's dinner included limited selections from Olive Garden's "healthy fare" offerings; all lower in calories than other menu options. Calorie counts for the dishes were printed on the menus, an innovation just for the dinner, a Darden spokesman said. Mrs. Obama chose the same entree she'd had during her September Olive Garden lunch: Venetian Apricot Chicken, with two grilled breasts in an apricot citrus sauce, served with broccoli, asparagus and diced tomatoes (400 calories). She started with Minestrone Soup (100 calories). Both dessert options were small in size and served in glass bowls. Mrs. Obama chose the Limoncello Mousse with Vanilla Cookie Crust for dessert (230 calories). (Above: The First Lady's entree)

Kass had the same salad and soup as his boss, and ordered the Capellini Pomodoro, made with Roma tomatoes, garlic, fresh basil, and extra-virgin olive oil for his entree (480 calories) and the Strawberry Mousse with White Chocolate Cream Cake for dessert (210 calories).

Let's What?
The conversation was all about parenting and helping kids live healthy lifestyles; it was an "opportunity" for Mrs. Obama to hear from the grassroots, according to the White House. The First Lady's guests included Andrea Breedlove; Cynthia Foster; Jenny Hogan; Cassandra Leach; husband/wife Richard and Carrie Martinez; and husband/wife Jason and Andrea Roberts. They were chosen, according to Mrs. Obama's Press Secretary, Hannah August, on the recommendation of various organizations and White House partners "who helped identify people in the area who were making healthy changes at home and/or communities."

For instance, Breedlove is a high school crisis counselor who helps teen girls work with negative body image issues; the Roberts couple works nationally on creating bike-friendly communities; Hogan, a mother of three, is vice president of her local elementary school PTA and raised $54,000 by organizing a running event. Her kids--ages four, six, and eight--all do pint-sized triathalons, she told Obama Foodorama.

After the menu briefing, the rest of the media was ushered out, but the two reporters traveling with the First Lady were allowed to remain in the room. The duo are from The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and typically cover the President rather than his wife. Mrs. Obama opened the conversation by saying it's one thing to sit in Washington, DC and talk about the initiatives she's championing, but that it doesn't matter if they're not reaching parents and kids and having an impact on the ground.

Which is true: In the post-dinner de-briefing with the rest of the media, four different guests told Obama Foodorama that they had never heard of the Let's Move! campaign until they were called by White House aides five days ago and invited to the dinner. They're inspired and very interested now, of course, all said.

Kass moderated the conversation, leading the parents through telling their stories, and Mrs. Obama shared her own stories--which included explaining the Walmart partnership and how she came to start Let's Move!. (Above: Kass, seated between Martinez (l) and Breedlove)

Stressing the need for parents to set examples, Mrs. Obama talked about how her father was active when she was growing up. Before he got Multiple Sclerosis, he swam and boxed, she said.

She said "Let's Move!" is a result of her own experiences as a working mother whose husband was out of town a lot.

"For me this is personal," Mrs. Obama said. "This issue for me came out of my own experiences."

During Let's Move! campaign speeches, Mrs. Obama often describes the difficulty she had feeding her children healthy food when she was essentially a single mother, thanks to her husband being away in Washington as a Senator. She talks about a reliance on high-sodium, high-calorie take-out and pre-packaged foods. She rarely mentions that Kass was the family's personal chef when they were still living in Chicago, and that she had the benefit of the kind of help that few parents have.

During the dinner, she described the thrilled reaction of local kids to her White House Kitchen Garden when they're invited to harvest events, and talked about throwing open the vast grounds for the South Lawn Series, where kids are invited for fitness events. She told the parents that the President has been coaching daughter Sasha's basketball team.

"He hasn't missed a game," Mrs. Obama said. "I think he was hoping to get this weekend off, but I'm gone," she added.

She also said that every night her husband is in town, the family has dinner at 6:30pm.

"Every meeting stops at 6:30," Mrs. Obama said.

To make the point that sometimes kids don't think that what their parents do is cool and it's better to let them discover things for themselves, Mrs. Obama told a story about Sasha that this writer in the past has also heard Kass and other White House chefs re-tell at events. It's a go-to White House story at this point.

Mrs. Obama's version at the Olive Garden went like this: One day, Sasha came home from school, and told her mother that at school they have the best tomatoes, called "hair" tomatoes. "You mean heirloom tomatoes?" Mrs. Obama finally asked; Sasha said yes. Mother explained to child that heirloom tomatoes grow in the Kitchen Garden, to which she said Sasha replied, "No, Mom, ours is much better."

Mrs. Obama also talked about how childrens' palates can become accustomed to healthier food, citing daughter Malia's taste for sugary juices. When Mrs. Obama asked Malia to cut her juice in half with water, she did, and then began to dilute it even further. At one point, Malia tasted undiluted juice and told her mom she didn't like it because it tasted too sweet and strong.

At the end of the dinner, Mrs. Obama talked about the success she's had in rounding up private sector commitments for her campaign, in particular the Walmart partnership. She focused on the power of consumers in getting businesses to change and adapt to the demand for healthier and fresher foods.

Before she departed the Olive Garden, Mrs. Obama signed autographs and greeted the team of chefs. Some of her guests' kids and spouses were allowed in to take photos with the First Lady.
Curious onlookers also filled the parking lot, mesmerized by the sight of the motorcade and the police blockade. Many comments were overheard by this writer about the snipers positioned on the roofs of the surrounding buildings in the shopping mall.

"She was very down to earth," guest Breedlove, 48, said of Mrs. Obama after the dinner. Hogan, 38, the PTA mother of three, used the same phrase.

"I was thrilled," Breedlove said, adding that she wanted to "run around and around and around" the dinner table.

"She is inspiring."

Mrs. Obama joined Top Chef stars and Dallas Cowboy stars on Friday morning in Dallas for an event focusing on school lunches before traveling to Florida for the four final events for the tour, which included the keynote address of the tour at Northland, a Church Distributed in Longwood. Thursday's dinner won't be her last with new friends: She is scheduled to join the President for the third "Dinner with Barack" event, the "Dinner with Barack and Michelle" fundraiser that was held by Obama for America during the last fiscal quarter of 2011. The Let's Move! dinner was a good dress rehearsal.

Mrs. Obama's 2011 celebration for the one year anniversary of the Let's Move! campaign was a comparatively simple day trip to Atlanta, Georgia; the 2012 election was at the time a much more distant point on the event horizon.

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. (Above: The First Lady's place setting and the special menu)

CLICK HERE for all posts about the First Lady's tour for the second anniversary of the Let's Move! campaign.

*Walmart note: The company claims to have "saved" shoppers $1.1 billion over the last year in service to Let's Move!, according to Executive Vice President for Corporate Affairs Leslie Dach.

Information: The Olive Garden Mrs. Obama visited was at 9333 Rain Lily Trail, Fort Worth, Texas. Phone: (817) 750-0800.

*Top photo by Chuck Kennedy/White House; others by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama