When I was growing up, my parents taught me that it is customary to be grateful and polite when you are invited to somebody’s house. The rules would be no different for the White House, of course. Maybe that is why I have been hesitant to write about my trip to DC until now. I have been struggling with how to capture the whole event – the thrill, the honor, the inspiration…and also some of my concerns and constructive feedback. I don’t have any real dirt to share and I am not leaking any government secrets. So, I suppose my grandmother wouldn’t mind if I give some feedback about the experience, especially if it is done respectfully (and without too much kvetching.)
Here it is…The good, the bad and the ugly.
I should start by saying that I still wonder if this was all a dream. Seriously – was I really invited to the White House? I told my friend to pinch me, but then immediately regretted that decision…
The day began with a policy-heavy breakfast, sponsored by Share our Strength. There were several speakers, including the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, who talked about the connection of academic success to our current fast-food culture. While they were preaching to the choir, the statistics they shared were staggering, and got us even more excited for the White House event.
It’s hard to imagine that the walk to the White House and the ensuing hour-long wait to get through (three!) security checkpoints would be listed in “The Good” section of my experience. But it allowed us to network and get to know some of the other 500+ chefs in attendance. I loved chatting with fellow IACP members and meeting Food Network star, Aaron McCargo Jr., who is an avid supporter of Share our Strength. I hope that this isn’t the last I see of him – I’d love for him to make a guest appearance at DooF-A-Palooza in May 2011. More on that later…
The long wait on the White House lawn got progressively steamier as chefs rushed to get their photo taken in front of the residence and then quickly crowded under trees, stripping off their chef coats in hopes of a cool breeze. At long last, we were asked to take our seats. I am pretty confident that I can speak for most of us there – we were giddy with excitement…and couldn’t help but guess what color Michelle Obama would be wearing.
Sam Kass, the (adorable) assistant White House Chef opened the discussion, followed by a chef and a school principal who talked about their success improving the way that their students interacted with food. But the real show began when Michelle Obama took to the podium and worked her magic.
“We are going to need your 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. You have tremendous power as leaders on this issue because of your deep knowledge of food and nutrition and your ability to deliver these messages in a fun and delicious way and I want to thank you for joining the Chefs Move to Schools campaign.”
She had several suggestions for how chefs can get involved in their adopted schools: doing cooking demonstrations, teaching kids to prepare meals at home, leading a cooking club, planting a garden, and working with teachers to integrate cooking with their existing lesson plans.
Sometimes an idea is simply that – an idea…something people can run with and elaborate on. But I came to this event with blinders on. I was thrilled that Michelle Obama was taking on the important issue of culinary and nutrition education. And I naively believed that this was a thought-out program, with support in place. Unfortunately, at the present time, this initiative isn’t quite ready for consumption. Like a fine cheese, it needs some tending and more time to mature.
A few things that seemed misguided:
- The Chefs Move to Schools initiative encourages chefs to adopt schools and to try to make improvements on the food that is served. While the idea of improving school food is a stellar one (hello – Jamie Oliver had an entire show on the topic!) unfortunately change can’t usually be made on a school by school basis. Over the course of the past several months, I have been working with a dedicated group of parents and our school district’s food service director to implement school lunch reform. But for most school districts, the key decision makers are at the county, city or district level. Our school district is fairly small, encompassing fewer than 10 schools. But imagine the challenges faced by Chicago, with only one single school district for the entire city! Individual well-intentioned chefs can’t simply prance into their adopted schools and try to make changes. It will take a team effort with much more organization and funding.
- Most of the chefs that attended the event work full time or already dedicate our professional careers to working with children. It is unrealistic to expect that we have enough time or financial resources to devote to our adopted schools.
- The volunteer model is good for small scale projects but doesn’t lend itself to a project of this scope. I can’t help all of the students and schools that need support at the expense of my own children.
- We need need funding to make the program sustainable. Those of us who are passionate about culinary education would benefit from an official affiliation (stamp of approval, so to speak) with the Chefs Move to Schools Campaign. Perhaps if the private sector was able to recognize our involvement with this campaign, they would be more willing to fund our work. Or better yet, there should be a support network in place to help us get grants through suitable fiscal sponsors. Grant money could be used for equipment, ingredients and our valuable time. If we were funded, we could encourage people with years of youth culinary education under our belts to train a new generation of teachers.
As we wilted in the humid 90+ degree heat, the water supply was limited and was served in styrafoam cups. Yes, styrafoam – in the middle of the worst petroleum based environmental disaster EVER. Sorry to end on such a complain-y note. Don’t tell my grandma.
p.s. Many thanks to my second cousins and friends who hosted me in DC – you added a personal touch to the experience that I’ll never forget!
Other coverage of Chefs Move to Schools: