At the White House Garden
After receiving a call from the Cooking Matters (formerly Operation Frontline)/Mass Coordinator about flying down to Washington, DC for the launch of Michelle Obama’s “Chefs Move to School” initiative with Share Our Strength, I started to get excited.
The purpose for the launch was for each chef to adopt the White House mission to work with a school in his or her community and along with parents, teachers and food service employees to increase food literacy among the children and community. Changing the menus to include more natural foods cooked from scratch and implementing working gardens were some of the main focuses.
I worked a full 6 day work week then after my shift on Thursday, drove to the airport to catch a flight to Baltimore (which was 4 hours delayed, time to catch some sleep and eat a $4 yogurt), and landed in the nation’s capital at about midnight. A Portobello burger and a few glasses of wine with an old friend later, I headed to bed, anticipating what the next day would bring.
I had my doubts to be sure. I’m not impressed with Big Ag and was hoping for something honest and strongly supported. I was pretty impressed with what I saw.
We met at the JW Marriott for a breakfast meeting sponsored by Share Our Strength with speakers on the forefront of the school food reform revolution: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, New York Public Schools Executive Chef Jorge Collazo, school lunch author Janet Poppendieck, White House Chef Sam Kass, Share Our Strength Founder/Executive Director Billy Shore, and Chef April Neujean of the New Orleans Edible Schoolyard. After each speech and discussion, you could feel the room grow with excitement. None of us could wait to get out and do it. “You’d never think of implementing a salad bar as guerrilla warfare. But that’s what it is. Kid by kid. School by school,” said Jorge Collazo, the Executive Chef for NYC Schools.
After the breakfast, we walked over to the White House where we went through a long line of Secret Security (reminding us that, among other things, stun guns weren’t allowed. As if being modern chefs this might be some avant garde trick to sear meats). The line was hot and sticky in our whites, or “blouses,” as the First Lady refered to them. But it gave us a chance to network and share thoughts, ideas, and define our call to action.
Once on the South Lawn we made our way over to the White House Gardens. It was surreal to be there and inspiring to be among some of the nation’s top chefs, all there to support and continue Michelle Obama’s campaign. “You know more about food than almost anyone – other than the grandmas,” she said, “and you’ve got the visibility and the enthusiasm to match that knowledge.”
The vibe was like a farmers market, fresh and inviting “…like some huge central organ beating with giant force and sending the blood of life through every vein in the city.” [-Emile Zola, The Belly of Paris, 1873] There is no choice here but to move forward. It’s no longer acceptable to turn away and let someone else market to our children.
Sam Kass gave a speech for the media, and then Michelle Obama came out to continue the conversation. Her genuine passion about the subject was contagious and I felt extremely proud to be there. My hope is that indeed I do get paired with a local school, which is the whole point, and that I can use my skills to help make a difference. I flew home after the launch and went back to work. Not a bad gig for a day off.