Down East 2013 ©
So last week I was invited to the White House …
Sorry, it’s just so much fun to write that sentence, I couldn’t resist. And, besides, it’s true.
Let me back up a little. A few weeks ago I got an email inviting me to apply to go to Washington to respond to Michelle Obama’s new initiative to fight childhood obesity and improve the quality of food served in our nation’s schools. The idea: invite chefs to the White House, educate and inspire them, and then send them back home. The assignment: each chef adopts a school in their community and attempts to improve the food served in that school.
I filled out the application and the security questionnaire and hoped for the best. A week later I got word that I would be one of 60 chefs/food writers/childhood educators to go to D.C, with IACP  (International Association of Culinary Professionals). As a young girl my fantasy was to meet Julie Andrews; as a teen my dreams veered to Mick Jagger. These days there are few people I would rather meet than the Obamas. All of a sudden it looked like my dream was finally coming true. I imagined a small, intimate group on the White House lawn, talking with the First Lady about issues like childhood eating, obesity, and childhood hunger. Apparently over 800 chefs (some reports count as many as 1000 chefs) shared my interest because that’s how many showed up to be part of the “Chefs Move to Schools” campaign.
The day began with a breakfast sponsored by Share our Strength , an organization I am intimately involved with here in Maine. SOS, a national non-profit organization, works to fight childhood hunger and has the ambitious goal of “ending childhood hunger in America by 2015.” The room was filled with over 800 chefs from all over the country. Pity the poor chef of the J.W. Marriot Hotel in D.C. who had to cook for all of us. It was no ordinary sea of white chef’s coats, but a room full of superstars from restaurants around the country mingling with celebrity chefs from popular TV shows like Top Chef and Iron Chef. (Breakfast focused on health: yogurt with fresh fruit, muffins, egg white omelet’s and sweet potato and chicken sausage hash. Not great, but not too bad.) But the real stars were the panelists — Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education; Sam Kass, the White House Assistant Chef; academics; principals of lower schools; and chefs who have already started programs in schools across the country.
The message to all the chefs was loud and clear: be patient. Changing the food served in local schools takes a lot of listening and respect. Start small.
After breakfast we all marched to the White House, almost everyone in their white chefs jackets, twittering, texting, videotaping, photographing the short two block walk. We stood under the blazing D.C. sun (a sweltering 93 degrees with what felt like 200 percent humidity) as we waited to clear security. I met chefs from California, Seattle, Oregon, Louisiana, New York — as far away as Rome, Italy. Slowly the line began to move, and we went through not one but two security stations.
And there we were. It felt like that moment in the Wizard of Oz where the film goes from black and white to color. The lawn of the White House is a glorious place. Gone was the noise of traffic, police cars, helicopters, and city buzz replaced by birds, the smell of roses. (Oh my, there is the Rose Garden. THE ROSE GARDEN.) I was so overwhelmed by how tranquil the grounds were I almost forgot I was surrounded by 800 chefs sweating profusely in their starched white jackets. We were each handed a tall white paper toque with Michelle Obama’s mission statement printed on the chef’s hat: “We are going to need everyone’s 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…”
We walked around the gardens, taking photos, and feeling the intense excitement. Everyone wanted their picture taken with Rachel Ray (who I didn’t see but was reported to be there), as well as Cat Cora, Tom Colicchio, Daniel Boulud, and Marcus Samuelsson (just some of the famous chefs), but mostly everyone wanted a shot with the majestic White House in the background. When else would we ever get this close?
And then, finally, they asked all 800 plus of us to take our seats. Rows of fold-up chairs were placed so close to the White House that I could see the outdoor furniture on the second floor terrace, inspect the red geraniums lining the window boxes and smell the power and beauty of it all. And then the First Lady came out, dressed casually (a white blouse with “splatters” of color, simple pants, and classic pearl earrings) looking regal, elegant, poised. We listened to Sam Kass talk about the White House garden and then heard Chef Todd Gray of Equinox, a Washington restaurant, talk about his partnership with a local school. He explained how they planted corn, squash, and beans and used the growing experience as a way to teach students about ancient civilizations.
The First Lady spoke about the connection between food and happiness. “So many good memories involve food,” she said. "You are all at the heart of this initiative because if anyone understands nutrition and food, it's the folks sitting here in their whites today. You know more about food than almost anyone – other than the grandmas – and you've got the visibility and the enthusiasm to match that knowledge.” She talked about how many children go to school hungry and how school lunches were so crucial to their nutrition. “Let’s make salad bars fun,” she enthused.
Mrs. Obama spoke for about fifteen minutes and for fifteen minutes all 800 chefs forgot about the heat, the sun, and the sweat trapped inside their chef’s coats and listened. She urged us all to go home and find a school and make friends with the principal and teachers. “Bring them food,” she joked, “and they will welcome you.”
The overriding message was that fixing the problem of childhood obesity and the food kids eat at school wasn’t going to change by government telling people what to eat or how to eat. She urged us to get involved on a local level and change the system “one school at a time.”
Mrs. Obama also spoke about encouraging Congress to pass a school nutrition bill. According to an article in the Huffington Post  written by Associated Press reporter Mary Clare Jalonick: “Legislation that passed a Senate committee earlier this year asks the Agriculture Department to create new standards for all foods in schools, including vending machine items, to give students healthier meal options. It would also expand the number of low-income children eligible for free or reduced cost meals.”
A brass band played and Mrs. Obama shook a few hands and then she was gone, off to harvest the first crop of vegetables from the White House edible garden with local school children. We sipped ice-cold water from paper cups. We sweated. But we were inspired.
I walked back to my hotel thinking of the local elementary school in my town in southern Maine. My dream is that one day, despite the long cold Maine winters, there will be a greenhouse and children will grow the fresh fruits and vegetables they will eat in their own cafeteria. My dream is that teachers will figure out a way to create curriculum around the growing of vegetables that brings in art, history, math, science, and writing. My dream is that one day kids will know what it means to eat food fresh from the ground, from the tree, from the vine, and not from the freezer or the plastic pouch. My dream, like Michelle Obama’s, is that one day soon food in school cafeterias will have colors, be fresh, and actually be good for children. “Kids learn better with a good, healthy meal,” she told us. Amen.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Chefs Move to School campaign, go to: http://healthymeals.nal.usda.gov/nal_display/index.php?tax_level=1&info_center=14&tax_subject=225 
Also, the Southern Maine Share our Strength Taste of the Nation dinner  will be held this year on June 27th from 3 to 8 p.m. on the grounds of Ocean Gateway International Marine Terminal in downtown Portland. Over twenty of the top chefs in Maine will be cooking. All ticket proceeds goes to feeding hungry children in Maine. Tickets are still available.