Dear Mom-In-Chief, | Civil Eats

Dear Mom-In-Chief,

As First Lady you have the ability to set the table for what our nation’s children eat by adding a plank of food justice to your platform. Many ideas have already been sent your way, including starting an organic garden on the White House lawn and appointing a First Farmer. But where should you start?

I request that you make the health of our nation’s children your platform priority. Especially with two growing girls to nurture and nourish, you must understand that we will only be successful as a nation when all children in our country are healthy and well-fed.

You have the support of the 44th President. The Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, was quoted yesterday in the Washington Post explaining President Obama’s goals for the USDA, “The vision is, he wants more nutritious food in schools.” Vilsack went on to depict the role of local foods in that mission: “In a perfect world, everything that was sold, everything that was purchased and consumed would be local, so the economy would receive the benefit of that.”

You have a ripe opportunity to make great strides toward that vision with the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, which is the federal legislation that establishes the guidelines for our nation’s school meal programs and the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program. Every four or five years, there’s an opening for all of those concerned with the health of our nation’s children to evaluate, defend, and improve the federal Child Nutrition Programs. That time is now as the current Child Nutrition Act expires in September 2009.

With at least 35 to 40 percent of children’s daily eating occurring during the school day, a reformed cafeteria could improve the health and increase the capacity to learn for the 30 million children that eat at school 180 days per year.

When you invited Chef Sam Kass into the White House Kitchen, your spokeswoman said “he happens to have a particular interest in healthy food and local food.”  Mr. Kass has spoken out previously on the need to change the school lunch menu by decreasing the high levels of sugar and fat. He’s right.

Earlier this month the results of the latest school nutrition dietary assessment study by the Journal of the American Dietetic Association exposed that in the 2004-2005 school year, only 6% to 7% of schools met all nutrition standards. This is unacceptable.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 25% of children between the ages of 6 and 11 were overweight in 2007. In the late 1970s, that number was only 6.5%. The oft-quoted statistic that one in three children born in 2000 will be diabetic in their lifetime (make that one in two if the child is black or Hispanic) demonstrates we can’t wait a moment longer to act.

If you make the health of our nation’s children your priority, you could save countless lives and potentially save us billions of dollars.

Consider the economic stress of diet-induced diseases such as Type II Diabetes, now inflicting youth. The insulin, needles, test strips, blood sugar monitors, doctor’s appointments, etc. take a considerable chunk of change. The average annual expense for a person diagnosed with diabetes is $11,744, of which $6,649 is directly attributed to the disease. Those with diabetes have medical expenses that are 2.3 times higher than those with working pancreases.

Sasha and Malia are fortunate to be eating nutritious local, organic lunches at Sidwells Friends School. This is what your girls ate at lunch on Tuesday, February 10th:

We’ll bring the news to you.

Get the weekly Civil Eats newsletter, delivered to your inbox.

    Organic Vegetarian Chili, Carrot Apple Soup, Roasted Local Beet Salad, Salad du Jour, All Natural Beef Chili, Brown Rice, Steamed Zucchini and Grapefruit Slices

The above shows the solution can be delicious. How wonderful that you and the President can provide local, fresh and healthy foods for the First Daughters, but what about kids in the rest of the country? From your previous neighborhood on the south side of Chicago to your new community in Washington, D.C. with the highest childhood obesity rates in the country, the nutritional divide that stymies the development and potential of youth is an open wound.

The average school cafeteria unfortunately operates on the lowest common denominator of cost, not quality. The USDA currently reimburses schools $2.57 for every free lunch it serves and lower amounts for reduced cost and full price meals. This leaves about one dollar to cover actual food costs, once labor and overhead costs are factored in. What do you expect food service directors to feed our kids with on a $1.00?

Thankfully, kids, parents, food service staff, teachers, farmers, school administration, and other community members have a taste for change and have been working to incorporate fresh, local product—no matter the perceived barriers—through what is called “farm to school” programs.

The farm to school movement has not waited for the federal government to make children a priority. There are over 2,000 known programs in 39 states as reported by the National Farm to School Network, a joint project of the Center for Food and Justice at Occidental College and the Community Food Security Coalition.

Even though I promote from scratch cooking, you don’t have to start from scratch in your platform.

The Child Nutrition Forum, a collaboration of many groups, including, National Farm to School Network, School Nutrition Association, Food Research and Action Center and School Food FOCUS, has a statement of principles that outlines key issues to champion immediately.

From there you can delve into an extensive menu of ideas such as establishing a national farm to school grant program or strengthening nutrition standards for school meal programs.

On February 26, I invite you to attend one of two Congressional briefings on farm to school and hear directly from those working every day for a healthy America.

Thank you for being a loyal reader.

We rely on you. Become a member today to read unlimited stories.

Fulfill your wish to be America’s Mom-in-Chief by making sure that every child has the nutrients necessary to carry our country forward—now that is a stimulus plan I can believe in.


Debra Eschmeyer

Debra Eschmeyer, Co-Founder and Program Director of FoodCorps, Farmer, and Communications and Outreach Director of the National Farm to School Network, has 15 years of farming and sustainable food system experience. Working from her organic farm in Ohio, Debra oversees the FoodCorps program development for service members working on school gardens and Farm to School while deciphering policy and building partnerships to strengthen the roots of FoodCorps. She also manages a national media initiative on school gardens, farmers’ markets and healthy corner stores. Read more >

Like the story?
Join the conversation.

  1. Dana MeckstrothBrown
    Awesome! How do we forward our support to Mrs. Michelle Obama?
  2. We are trying to get the First Lady and children out to the Washington Youth Garden. any ideas or particularly contact information for how we can get a formal invite to reach her?

    (yes, we are already working the sidwell friends field trip route)
  3. great post!
  4. WELL DONE Deb!!!! I could not have said it better myself.
  5. Do we need to spend more than $1 per meal? Our family averages 62¢ per person per meal over all meals. Since supper is more expensive so lunch is really less than 62¢. A lot less.

    Given that schools are preparing meals on a much larger scale they can make cost savings in bulk purchases unavailable to you and I as individual consumers.

    See my “Food for a Week” which was inspired by the Time article.

    Rather than how much is being spent perhaps it would be better to focus on what is being eaten. A lot of what is prepared for kids at schools gets tossed in the trash - the kids don’t want it. What they are eating is apparently not all that great either given the news about recalls of peanuts and beef that went into the school programs.

    Speaking from direct experience, the farm-to-school program is a failure. It is way too complicated to deal with, to jump through the hurdles to supply schools. We have had several schools try to do this with our farm. The only case that worked was they actually bought our all natural hot dogs through a local store instead of buying them directly from us. That was a solution that worked but took way too much effort to make happen.

    Of course, I would rather see more spending on feeding the nation's children than what has been wasted bailing out the auto industry and investment bankers. Bah.
  6. D.Piccinin
    To the person that stated their family spends 62 cents/meal, I would like to see the formula of spending that you use and how much of your foods are not purchased or possibly donated. I would also like to see the nutrient profile of the meals you prepared at 62 cents and see if it meets the daily recommended intakes of school aged children, that is a requirement of the program. Remember of the $2.57 that is reimbursed/meal, $1.47 goes to labor/production of the food and 22 cents to pay for milk (a requirement of the National School Lunch program), leaving only 78 cents/meal.
    Adding an extra dollar for the meals is much less expensive than the epidemic of obese children leading to nearly 1 in 2 ethnic minority children developing diabetes. By 2050, our ethnic minority population is projected to nearly equal of our US population at approximately 45%. Either we invest in adding a mere dollar, looking for innovative ways to improve the quality of the food for the National school lunch program or we as a society support youth that will be disabled due to diabetes, With 32 million children in the National School Lunch Program, we can invest 32 million dollars or pay later the 174 BILLION to care for those children that later on go to develop diabetes and never become productive members of our society due to disability such as blindness, amputations, early heart disease and stroke. in. Note: the annual cost for diabetes was published in Diabetes Care 2007 and does not take into account the forecasted increased number of people that will have diabetes as our current generation ages or take into account other indirect cost of the diabetic patient, such as care providers to help the blind person ambulate within their home or the person recover from above the knee amputation.

More from

Food Access



Zero-Waste Grocery Stores in Growth Mode as Consumers Seek to Ditch Plastic

Inside a re_ grocery store in the Mar Vista neighborhood of Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy of re_grocery)

On Farms, ‘Plasticulture’ Persists

Rows of plastic-covered strawberry plants.

Oral History Project Preserves Black and Indigenous Food Traditions

Ira Wallace (left) and Sariyah Benoit sit together in Spelman College’s Victory Garden. (Photo credit: Heirloom Gardens Project)

Can AI Help Cut Plastic Waste From the Food System?