Chefs Move to Schools – My White House Experience

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.

The Good:
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.

The Bad:
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.

The Ugly:
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!

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18 Responses to Chefs Move to Schools – My White House Experience

  1. Daniel says:

    Look on the bright side, at least a chefs robe isn’t black! I think that should be placed on the ‘good’ section.

    I also know I’ll be taking my own advice in the future on this topic, but I hope you feel on the same level as any of those chefs and even the President and his wife. They’re just people! Don’t get me wrong, I’d like to meet him too, but more because he seems like a pretty good guy!

    As for everything about the food, schools, etc.. I’ll read more about all this on your past posts!

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Jane says:

    It was a great event and that I’m glad so many chefs were able to attend. As with any initiative, there are positive and negative aspects. Sometimes we get all caught up in the excitement that we forget the reality of implementation. I appreciate your candor in presenting both sides of the issue. I am encouraged that we have taken a step forward and the nation is more aware of the problem. Thank you for participating and sharing your impressions with us!

  3. It’s great to see so much enthusiasm, and I think your suggestions for converting that to realistic action steps are right on. Hopefully others came away with the same motivation. As you know from working with your school district, fixing what kids eat in schools is not something that can be solved overnight. It’s great if a chef comes in and gets kids excited about healthy food, but it won’t go far if the chefs leave and the school goes right back to serving the same old commodity processed foods.

    Keep up the great work, Michelle!

  4. Dan says:

    I couldn’t agree more. The intention behind the Chefs Move to Schools campaign is fantastic. Unfortunately the logistics are a bit more complicated. If this is all volunteer based, we’ll need more than one chef per school. I’d love to see something put in place with local government to encourage and support the cause. And I’d love to see the federal government support and give grants to new culinary school graduates who want to take a year to work with a school before jumping into the restaurant industry. A variation on AmeriCorps, this time for chefs.

  5. Looks like a great trip! I know the red tape factor & funds will be issues in trying to make change but it’s worth the effort by you and so many others. Keep on truckin’!

    • Thanks Amy, Karen, Colleen and Jane. Yes, we need to keep truckn’! It was amazing, despite my mixed feelings. Plus, I got to hang out with Dan, who posted a comment here, too.
      Dan – I LOVE your idea of the AmeriChefCorps…Pure genius. I have to say that I am amazed by the creativity that has transpired from some of our group’s emails after the event – it’s a great example that more heads are better than one!
      I love this comment I got via email: You are doing great–you are the first person to point out that Chefs Move To School (CMTS) has no clothes, like the emperor in the fairy tale.

  6. Great summary, Michelle, and I think you’re right to be cautious. There are so many exciting things happening with school food now, and so many mega-watt personalities attached, that it’s easy to get caught up in the possibilities while forgetting the realities.

    That’s not to say we shouldn’t be hopeful — we should! and Chicago in fact recently announced fairly huge changes in its school lunch program districtwide — but there’s still lots of work ahead (as you all know!).

    One thing about the AmeriChefCorps idea: There’s actually a new organization called FoodCorps that is looking to recruit young people to serve stints in public schools where they’ll help develop school gardens and farm-to-school programs. Pretty neat idea.

  7. Kate says:

    I think it’s fantastic that you were invited to such a prestigious event and we are fortunate that you can now share your knowledge with us. Although the Chefs move to Schools Campaign is not ready for implementation, it is at least a positive message. For it to be truly successful there needs to some significant changes made to the Federal Lunch Program and the rate of reimbursement the service providers receive.
    Styrofoam Cups!! Really?? Somebody was not paying attention to the audience.

  8. joel says:

    Well we need to start somewhere and it may as well be on the White House lawn. I sure your Grandmother would approve of good, bad and even the ugly comments. Thank you MIchelle for taking the time and expense to travel across the country (and back again) to trumpet our issues!

  9. you squarely hit on the head my biggest concern over the past few months. getting it done (with sustainable changes), vs talking about it, planning it, brainstorming solutions, launching, getting celebrities involved. i don’t have a clue how to influence county, city and district leaders! did you meet gracie cavnar when you were there? She leads a program in houston called Recipe For Success Foundation which brings chefs into HISD schools.

  10. Michelle ,
    Always be the authentic you. Your writing captures what I felt at this event and also as a person who does what you do and you captured it well and with grace. Keep up the good work.

    Lisa Fontanesi

  11. Maria says:

    It is amazing that you got to do this! And I think it is just as important that you were able to really think about the event without being starstruck! I do think that the changes discuss will by necessity happen at the local level. It is hard to get down to the nitty-gritty at the national level because each school, school district, state, etc does things differently. One thing that I think you and other attendees got was a chance to connect with like-minded folk and share ideas. Some may work back at home, and some may not, but it is always great to see how others approach the same challenges.

    You rock, by the way. Have I told you that lately?

  12. Rosemary says:

    Yay for you Michelle. Such a wonderful opportunity and impressed that you were still able to keep your feet firmly placed on the ground. The world needs more people like you.

  13. I think it’s awesome that you went. An idea that’s starting out always has some kinks but it’s still a good one. I hope that someone picks up the Hawaii schools as a project, too (although, at least, we don’t have money to sell the fast food stuffs that other schools have succumbed to).

    • Thank you. I am happy I went, too, even though it showed me that I tend to be naively optimistic…It’s hard to imagine that we could have flown across the country for a mere idea. That said, things got very interesting right after I got back! After hearing my concerns for the sustainability of the initiative, someone I have been volunteering for said they would try to find some funds to pay me to consult and add more education to their program! More on that very soon… If it happens, I’ll definitely write to Michelle Obama to let her know how she inspired me and how I made it work for me… I am sure that there are chefs in Hawaii who would be interested in adopting local schools. Feel free to send them to my blog to read about it and then I can help them get going…Thanks, too, Maria and Rosemary! Maria – I like what you said about not being star struck. So true…especially when people like Tom Colicchio were there!

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