New York City -- Making his first public appearance on Monday evening after returning from his government shutdown furlough, White House Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition Policy Sam Kass presented Gus Schumacher with the James Beard Foundation's Leadership Award, hailing him as a "true visionary." (Above, Kass with Schumacher, JBF president Susan Ungaro, and chef Michel Nischan)
Schumacher, Executive Vice President of Policy and co-founder of the non-profit Wholesome Wave foundation, was one of the five honorees feted by JBF during a fancy dinner ceremony held in the penthouse of the Hearst tower. Celebrity chef and hunger activist Art Smith--a frequent White House guest chef--served as the evening's emcee.
Close to 2oo guests, including famous chefs, prominent food activists, and legends of the agriculture policy world gathered to hail the honorees over the organic and sustainably sourced feast. Recognized as a founder of America's local food movement, Schumacher, the great-grandson of a farmer, has had a decades-long career, and is among the legends.
|Kass pays tribute to Schumacher|
Kass said that without Schumacher's work, Mrs. Obama would not have been able to open the first farmers market by the White House "since Thomas Jefferson’s time," nor would she have been able to plant her famous Kitchen Garden on the South Lawn.
"The fact that it was even conceivable that the First Lady of the United States could just walk into the White House, start tearing up the South Lawn to plant some vegetables in such an iconic place, is the result of visionaries and trailblazers," Kass said.
"Gus is one of those people who have made the work that we're all doing possible."
Schumacher co-founded Wholesome Wave with chef Michel Nischan and Michael Batterberry. Its work is devoted to a key pillar of Mrs. Obama's childhood obesity campaign: Increasing access to healthy food, and making it more affordable for people in underserved rural and urban areas.
Among their projects is the Double Value Coupon Program, which offers Food Stamp, WIC, and seniors coupons that double their federal benefit funding at participating farmers markets nationwide.
"This work is groundbreaking," Kass declared. "Every day they're disproving the false notion that people who have lesser means don't want to eat healthy, delicious food."
"They're making markets that were once out of touch for those people accessible."
During his own remarks, Schumacher said that when he started dating his wife Susan, who joined him at the ceremony, he was Agriculture Secretary for Massachusetts, and "test drove" her as a potential partner by taking her to restaurants and ag fairs, where he was pitching anyone who would listen on the idea that using local produce was a win-win for chefs, farmers, and communities.
"Farmer by farmer, chef by chef, Gus helped weave together what we now call the local food movement," Kass said, after telling a story about Schumacher bringing locally-grown tomatoes to chefs.
The local food movement "developed not because it was inevitable--nothing said we were going to be in this place," Kass said. "It developed because Gus and others were smart and strategic and passionate and determined."
Promoting local foods is another key element of Mrs. Obama's childhood obesity campaign, as well as for the Obama Administration, with USDA's Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, which includes a Farm to School program to bring locally sourced foods into school cafeterias.
|Kass & Nischan present Schumacher with the award|
Schumacher was also humbled, he told Obama Foodorama.
"Getting this award from the James Beard people--this is heady stuff for a farm boy," Schumacher said, smiling.
The evening was a break from what will remain a very busy schedule for Wholesome Wave, Schumacher said, now gearing up for the full implementation of Obamacare, which contains a provision that allows fruits and vegetables to be prescribed by doctors as preventive care medicine.
"That is going to have a major impact on people's health, as well as on the sales for farmers and producers," Schumacher said.
"At the moment, no one is really grasping the huge implications of all this. We're moving into a preventive care model that's very different from a disease model, and the impact is going to be profound."
"It's something that is going to be truly revolutionary," Kass said of the project.
|Kass with honoree Cynthia Hayes|
JBF tapped Mrs. Obama for a Leadership Award in 2011, the inaugural year of the awards, though she did not attend the dinner ceremony. Last year, Kass was also in New York to present one of the JBF awards to Wendell Berry.
|Kass with honoree Dr. Marion Nestle|
During the course of the evening, Kass spoke with each honoree, offering congratulations and discussing food policy issues. Nestle, who founded the food policy program at NYU, is a vocal critic of junk food marketing directed at children, and was at 1600 Penn last month for Mrs. Obama's first-ever White House Convening on Food Marketing to Children.
Over the last few years, Kass and Nestle have had some public disagreements over policy issues, but he wrapped his arms around her as he congratulated her, and clapped enthusiastically after her remarks from the awards podium.
After the ceremony, as he attempted to make his exit, Kass was repeatedly stopped and congratulated by guests for his recent engagement to MSNBC anchor Alex Wagner, who hosts the mid-day political show NOW with Alex Wagner.
Michel Nischan had announced the big news from the podium as he introduced Kass, noting his recent 16-day furlough, which lasted from Oct. 1-16.
"What happened during that down time?!" Nischan joked.
"You go on furlough, you get a life," Kass responded, laughing. The engagement took place before Kass was furloughed, however.
Asked by one guest if his parents were happy with his choice of life partner, Kass nodded enthusiastically. "They're just crazy about Alex," he said.
Kass is so devoted to his future bride that he declined the invitation to join fellow revelers for the awards after party at Ma Peche restaurant, saying he had to "get home to Alex," whom he said lives in New York. The relationship is currently on a commuter basis, since Kass works at the White House.
|Kass with chef Maria Hines|
Thanks to being at the White House all day on Monday, Kass arrived late to the dinner, slippig into his seat after the smoked-salmon appetizer was served. The menu was created by Seattle-based chef Maria Hines, who received the 2009 James Beard Award for Best Chef Northwest.
Kass led the crowd in a standing ovation for Hines as she took the podium and explained her politically-themed menu, featuring three courses inspired by pending federal agriculture legislation.
"I wanted to take the opportunity to create a platform through menu and palate, to evoke and inspire action for change, in regards to our food system,” said Hines, whose Seattle restaurants are Tilth, the Golden Beetle and Agrodolce.
The main course was Wagyu beef from grass-fed cattle raised by Eiko Vojkovich, owner-operator of the Skagit River Ranch, who attended the dinner. "We killed eight for this dinner," Vojkovich said at one point during the evening.
|Kass with chef and emcee Art Smith|
*Photos by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama