The autumn sunshine was very bright, the weather unseasonably warm, and there was a party atmosphere at the White House for Wednesday’s Healthy Kids Fair, when First Lady Michelle Obama kicked off her shoes and hula hooped, Double Dutch jump roped, and sprinted through an obstacle course on the South Lawn, accompanied by dozens of visiting school children. This bit of unexpected fun is what got reported about the event in the mainstream media. Adding to the party atmosphere: The White House Chefs, accompanied by high-profile guest chefs, were demonstrating recipes in a series of outdoor kitchen stations. (Top: Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack watches Mrs. Obama make remarks at the opening of the Fair)
But the Healthy Kids Fair couldn’t have been more serious, because it’s part of an ongoing Obama campaign to encourage kids, parents and families to make changes in their behavior—or face a grim future. It was a way of continuing the conversation about children’s health that Mrs. Obama started last Spring, when she planted the White House Kitchen Garden, and began to publicly discuss children’s health issues. Sec. Vilsack has been having similar child health conversations over the past six months too, in many of his own speeches, whether he’s talking to produce growers or appearing at Rural Tour events. In her remarks at the Healthy Kids Fair, Mrs. Obama repeated the grave statistics that have become a hallmark of her food policy speeches, noting that one in three American children are overweight or obese, and that for the first time ever, medical experts are predicting that if this doesn’t change, the current generation of children will have a shorter life span than their parents, due to diet-related disease. And then Mrs. Obama pointed out something she hasn’t previously mentioned in any of her speeches: Children spend a third of their time in schools, and schools are undermining parents’ best efforts.
“…We don’t have control over what you eat when you’re at school,” Mrs. Obama told the children seated on the grass in front of her. And then she addressed the parents. “So even when we’re– when we’re working hard to give our kids healthy food at home, if they go to school and eat a lunch that’s loaded with calories and fat, then all the efforts that we try to instill at home, it gets knocked off a little bit.”
Mrs. Obama pointed out more parental undermining, courtesy of what has become standard policy in many US schools:
“When I grew up — and I went to public schools in my neighborhood — I don’t care what you did; you had recess and you had gym on a very regular basis,” Mrs. Obama said. “So even though we’re encouraging our kids to exercise, if they can’t go to school and…get the same kind of exercise opportunities, then it makes our jobs as parents harder.”
The combination of poor school foods and no regular exercise within school curriculum might not be solely responsible for the rising rates of child obesity, but it sure isn’t helping. At the Healthy Kids Fair, Mrs. Obama and Sec. Vilsack announced one of their weapons of choice to combat this: USDA’s Healthier US Schools Challenge. The program is currently in about 635 elementary schools nationwide, which have pledged to eliminate junk foods from their campuses, make healthy foods available, include nutrition education in the curriculum, and re-introduce physical activity, either by adding recess or phys ed classes. Mrs. Obama and USDA are seeking to dramatically expand the program, and bring it up into Middle and High Schools, to include older populations of students. The First Lady promised to visit some schools that are successful in implementing the program.
Better school lunches are already possible
And here’s another angle that went largely unreported from the Healthy Kids Fair: The White House Chefs and the guest chefs weren’t just cooking random yummy recipes; they were specifically cooking nutritious, low fat, healthy dishes with ingredients that are already available to schools through USDA’s federal nutrition program. Mrs. Obama pointed this out in her remarks:
“ The chefs and nutritionists here today are going to show us how we can use the food that the USDA provides to schools as a way to prepare really tasty, healthy foods,” Mrs. Obama said. “…They’re going to take that food that you get in the schools and do some special stuff to show that with the food that we have, we can probably do even better than we’re doing.”
The event was a way of graphically illustrating that it’s possible to do a school food policy end run right now—and improve child health immediately. Executive Chef Cris Comerford and Kass demonstrated a healthy baked egg dish, and Exec Pastry Chef Bill Yosses and assistant pastry chef Susie Morrison made healthy baked apples for school breakfasts. Guest chef Koren Grieveson, of Chicago’s Avec restaurant, Zucchini Quesadillas as a healthy lunch recipe. Chef Todd Gray, owner of DC’s Equinox restaurant, demo’d healthy snacks with Sweet and Zesty Popcorn and Creamy Salsa dip. And Ellie Krieger, from the Food Network’s very popular “Healthy Appetites,” demonstrated that it’s easy to educate kids about fresh produce and encourage them to eat more healthfully, if veggies are conceptualized as a rainbow. All the recipes will be posted here this week. (Above: Mrs. Obama, Sec. Vilsack, Comerford, and Kass confer while Kass mixes eggs)
Pointing out that it’s already possible to create nutritious meals for schools is another way of bolstering the call to join the Healthier US Schools Challenge: There are no excuses for serving fried and fatty and hi-sodium foods in schools. Having a cooking demonstration like this at the White House was also a subtle way of pointing out that bad school meals can’t be blamed solely on USDA’s current policies—it has to do with choices schools are making on the grass roots level—and it has to do with parents allowing these choices to be made, without protests. Over the last few months, Food Initiative Coordinator Kass has been traveling around the DC-Maryland-Virginia area, visiting schools that have already instituted far better food practices. He’s been accompanied by USDA officials and the wives of cabinet secretaries—Karen Duncan, wife of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and Christie Vilsack, Sec. Vilsack’s wife. The team has visited schools that have created path-breaking nutrition programs, and these programs are usually in place because of a combination of parent advocacy and the work of tireless and visionary food service directors. It’s already possible to do things much, much better, and the White House and USDA want you to take action to make changes in your own school district. You don’t need to wait for government to institute more changes; you can use tools that are available now. Sure, that’s a complicated dynamic that requires parent action, parent education, and motivated school nutritionists–but it is possible; Baltimore’s Tony Geraci is a perfect example. USDA’s new Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food project, which re-focuses already available federal funding on local sourcing and farm to school initiatives, is another part of this rubric. Certainly, the federal standards for foods allowed into the nutrition programs must change, but it’s not the completely hopeless disaster that it’s often made out to be by food policy wonks.
Making change fun, and focusing on the positive…
The Healthy Kids Fair was part of a brilliant soft-glove strategy on the part of the White House and USDA to encourage schools to reform themselves, and make positive changes, without waiting for government intervention — and without waiting for the kinds of battles that can surround changes in policy, whether on the local or federal level. But in the coming months, as Mrs. Obama and Sec. Vilsack — and people from agencies across the Obama administration — continue to raise the public’s awareness about school health issues, we will eventually arrive at a point in time when schools that haven’t changed will move from being merely contributors to the child obesity epidemic, to being willful perpetrators of it. And considering that USDA supplies meals for more than 30 million children through its federal feeding programs, this is no small deal. If even a third of American schools get on board with much better health and nutrition programs, this could cause a huge change in the percentage rates of obesity in the population. Emphasizing the fun elements of critical physical activity — such as skipping rope and hula hooping — is a savvy approach to public health initiatives, and makes the dire need for it a bit less shocking. And reminding kids that healthy foods are delicious — as Mrs. Obama did at the event — and which Sam Kass has repeatedly done with other kids — puts a positive, happy spin on it all. (Above, the airborne First Lady skips rope on the South Lawn)
Making it easier…
We’re still in the consciousness raising part of the health and nutrition paradigm shift, and the Obama focus on the youngest, easiest targets for change — children — is a brilliant strategy, too. Mrs. Obama repeatedly notes in her speeches that it’s hard to change old habits — but it’s worth it. “Small changes have big effects” has become one of her catch phrases. And the Obama mantra of government can’t do it all was reinforced once again at the Healthy Kids Fair: For serious changes in public health and a major reduction in child obesity rates, it’s going to require action at every level, from personal through school, community, as well as through state and federal initiatives. Mrs. Obama noted this in her remarks, and added “We want to make it a little easier on you all — not just tell you what to do and what you should look like, but help you with some resources so that it doesn’t feel so impossible.” Raising awareness and providing challenges, and making healthy recipes available is just part of this effort to help. There will be more initiatives coming from the White House—and USDA, and Health and Human Services — and the Education Department. But at the end of the day, personal changes are what will make the biggest difference in public health…because government can’t do it all.
*Read a new report released this week from the federal Institute of Medicine, which notes that changes in school food policies are critical for the health of the current generation, too. In School Meals: Building Blocks For Healthy Children, the IOM calls for more fruits, more vegetables, and more whole grains in school lunches, as well as a reduction of salt, sugar, and fat, and a calorie limit for federally sponsored school lunches and breakfasts. The USDA commissioned the report; changing dietary guidelines in federal programs is crucial.
*Watch Mrs. Obama’s full remarks in the video below, courtesy of the White House. And do note that the First Lady is not calling for a ban on junk foods, or telling people exactly what to eat. She admits, once again, her love of French fries, and adds that the First Family loves its burgers. She’s calling for balance and moderation — and encouraging profound change.
Originally published on Obamafoodorama