On Friday, June 4, 2010, over 500 chefs from 38 states gathered at the White House by invitation of the first lady, Michelle Obama in support of her Chefs Move to Schools initiative. I was one of the fortunate chefs invited to participate. Besides Mrs. Obama’s Let’s Move! program, which has been designed get our children to exercise regularly, the concept of the chefs’ program is to get our talented and creative chefs across the nation into schools to teach kids about healthy eating and making it fun, as well as work with the administrators, teachers and cooking staff to create better meals for our children. Many of the chefs are helping to create school gardens, which of course, is the best way to acquaint kids with the food they eat—from the ground up!
This isn’t a new concept, although Michelle Obama has been making headlines with her programs, putting our children’s health in the spotlight, and raising people’s awareness. When I taught in a nursery school and day care center, over 30 years ago, I tried to incorporate healthy snacks into the daily routine and sent out lists of good food ideas and recipes to the parents. I planted seeds with the kids and brought in garden-grown produce. Once my own kids started nursery school, I went in as a volunteer and did food projects with them. I spent the most time working with kids in the elementary system where they are most anxious for a break from the daily school routine and the teachers love having parent participation. We learned about the miracle of seeds, planted them and cared for the seedlings until they could take them home to plant. Since my expertise is herbs, we rubbed, sniffed and tasted them, using them in everything from homemade pasta to scones and tea. We made food for history projects and current events; grinding peanuts to make peanut butter for national peanut week and learning about how the peanut grows and George Washington Carver. Kids love learning and learn more when they are hands-on involved. There is no better way to do this than from gardening to kitchen.
I belong to Les Dames d’Escoffier, which is a group of women food professionals. We work to provide grants and scholarships to those in our communities as well as with our Green Tables initiative which promotes sustainability and educating children, For the past five years, we have kids’ day at the farmers markets where we have a food scavenger hunt, plant seeds, create animal sculptures from vegetables and fruits, make ice cream, and more with them. I have worked as a member of the Herb Society of America for many kids’ days in local gardens and at the US National Arboretum which has an amazing children’s garden. These hands-on events that combine kids with gardening and healthy food are inspiring for everyone involved. I have taught kids’ cooking classes for over 25 years at L’Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda, Maryland, where they feature summer camps for many ages. Teach them and they will learn—they are hungry for this kind of education.
So, this is a nationwide mission and it is evident with the number of chefs who came to D.C. on a very hot summer day to gather in support and commitment to Mrs. Obama’s call. We began our day at 8 am at the JW Marriott nearest the White House where we had a breakfast put on by Share Our Strength, who were the organizers for this event and are working closely with the White House, along with many other generous sponsors. The enthusiasm in the room was enormous and contagious; the speakers from White House Assistant Chef Sam Kass to high school principals reporting how having chefs gardening and cooking in their schools had changed the whole community where they lived were quite moving.
Just after 10 am we walked en masse to the gates of the White House and there was a great feeling of empowerment—a gathering of highly-charged committed professionals. Although we had to be checked out beforehand and our names were on a roster, getting through security with that many people took a bit of time, however, once we were on the grounds, we were allowed to walk about and all of us headed for the recently planted and highly-touted organic kitchen garden.
I was in the front of the herd, so I made it to the garden before the crowds and was able to take photos. My hat’s off to the gardeners who maintain and plant the grounds of the presidential house—the garden was picture-perfect. I had a copy of the original plan, which has changed, as gardens do. Peas were hanging full-podded on netted trellises; tomatoes were flowering and staked with wooden stakes; brassicas, chard, spinach, lettuce and onions were planted in tidy raised beds. Huge rhubarb plants and mints overflowed raised wooden boxes. I looked for the herbs in particular—and noted there could be more—in fact, I would lobby for an herb garden on its own! There was a large and lovely patch of blooming chamomile (which I thought appropriate for calming the world leaders residing inside!), flowering chives, Italian flat-leaved and curly parsley and basil, in addition to a large showy bed of fennel.
Fortunately there were a few apple trees nearby, with a water station, so we could cool off and drink since it was about 95° F. We were waiting to hear the First Lady and chef Sam Kass speak to us at noon, so at about 11:30 am we crossed the South Lawn to go sit near the White House. It was hot as Hades out there and we were in a large group, however the spirits were high. Both chefs and gardeners are used to sweating anyway.
The First Lady was finally announced at 12:30 pm and we all stood as she came out. She is much taller than I thought and she is very statuesque; a lovely woman, poised and well spoken. Chef Sam Kass spoke to us about their joint mission for healthy well-nourished children and planting and harvesting the kitchen garden. Then he introduced D.C. chef Todd Grey of Equinox restaurant and he told the story of how he planted a garden at his kid’s school, then the principal there discussed the positive impact it had on the children, school staff, parents and community.
At last, Sam Kass introduced Michelle Obama. The First Lady joked about the heat and then set upon discussing her Let’s Move! program which is all about getting our kids to exercise regularly. Then she thanked the chefs for coming to the White House and gave us her views and intentions on her initiative Chefs Move to Schools. She was very comfortable and talked about her girls and how Sam can’t keep them out of the kitchen. And how we can help to change the lives of many children, encouraging us to sign up to be paired with a school. There are nearly 2,000 volunteers already signed up.
To read more, go to www.whitehouse.gov/blog/. Scroll down to June 4 entry ‘Chefs Move to Raise a Healthier Generation of Kids’ by Sam Kass to read his report for the day and Mrs. Obama’s commentary and see a few photos. There is also a video to click on to hear what she had to say. Also check out www.strength.org and www.letsmove.gov for more information. If you go to the latter and click on “Chefs Move to Schools” link, you can access the chef sign-up form to adopt a school.