Did this really happen?
Just over a week ago I found an email in my inbox from the IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals) asking if I would be interested in attending an event at the White House. Michelle Obama wanted to launch the next phase of her Let’s Move campaign to end childhood obesity with a lawn packed full of chefs. I couldn’t (and still can’t) think of anything that would stop me from going, so I sent in the requested security information and hoped for the best. Would there be a selection process? Was I eligible? Could I bring my camera with me?
I bought a ticket on the excellent Bolt Bus (plugs at every seat and wifi on the bus, it’s like Virgin Airlines hijacked Greyhound) and tried to pack wisely. I knew we’d be required to wear our chef’s coats on the White House lawn, so that took care of the tricky part (I dread to think what I would have dared to wear without a requirement). And then I received another email, this one from our White House contact. We would be allowed to bring in phones, cameras, video cameras…technology! I was surprised at the time, but I shouldn’t have been: more press=more press
The morning of the event we were invited to a sponsored breakfast from Share Our Strength. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke about the challenges we face when it comes to overhauling the school lunch program, but more importantly, he focused on the danger of doing nothing. He said, “What keeps me up every single night is that we have a dropout rate in this country that is staggering. We have 1.2 million students leaving our schools for the streets each year. We have to do everything we can to reduce that dropout rate and increase the graduation rate. But we can’t do it if we don’t start to address their health. We can’t do it if we don’t improve the quality of the food they’re eating.” I couldn’t agree more. Food is powerful.
I love hearing politicians discuss the connection between academic achievement and our current food culture. The processed foods that have taken over school lunches (not to mention the general American diet) don’t set students up for success. I’d love to see more relationships between local farms and schools. Is there a financially feasible way we can get fresh and local produce into cafeterias? I know a number of schools have started gardening programs, not only as a way to bring in unprocessed foods, but also as a learning tool for the students. Science classes can teach plant-life biology in the garden; English classes can discuss the various ecological influences in some of our most famous works of literature (When all at once I saw a crowd, A host of golden daffodils). This weekend in D.C. showed me how badly our food system needs overhauling, but also how much our education system stands to gain from that change.
And then we walked to the White House, where we mingled in the garden until Michelle Obama’s speech. It was hot, I was wearing a black chef’s coat (poor choice of color), and I could not have been more excited. I didn’t know what to expect (my favorite state of being). Among the guests were a number of chefs from The Food Network (Anne Burrell, Aaron McCargo Jr.) and a few past Top Chefs (Carla Hall, Ron Duprat). Everyone in the crowd (celebs and civvies alike) was simply charming on camera and I thank you all for lending me your time and voices.
As the crowd started to move from the garden, I realized it was time for the speech. We made our way to the South Lawn and sat down in sweaty anticipation. Sam Kass (assistant executive chef at the White House) opened for the First Lady and then it was showtime. Michelle Obama spoke to us about the Let’s Move campaign and our collective opportunity to change the future. I could paraphrase her, but I’d rather quote:
“We are going to need your time and talent to solve the childhood obesity epidemic and I am calling on our nation’s chefs to get involved by adopting a school and working with teachers, parents, school nutritionists and administrators to help educate kids about food and nutrition. You have tremendous power as leaders on this issue because of your deep knowledge of food and nutrition and your ability to deliver these messages in a fun and delicious way and I want to thank you for joining the Chefs Move to Schools campaign.”
Thank you, First Lady Obama, for letting me be a part of this. I’m thrilled.
Of course, I also made a video: