Adventures in a Chef’s Coat at the White House
It’s Tuesday night in Seattle. I’ve just arrived at my neighborhood yoga studio for class. We are a cozy group of four, unrolling our mats onto the floor and preparing for practice.
Joel, the teacher, greets us, and then announces, “Hey everyone, Kim’s going to the White House.”
All heads turn in my direction.
I explain that in the morning, I’m flying to DC to be part of an IACP delegation that will attend the kick-off event for a first lady initiative called Chefs Move to Schools. That it’s the latest piece of Let’s Move!, Mrs. Obama’s campaign to end childhood obesity, and that she’d like to have several hundred of us culinary types over on the south lawn to share her vision for us to each adopt a school to help overhaul the sorry state of school food.
Gale, who’s seated right in front of me, can hardly contain her excitement. Her eyes get big and she sits up tall. “I’m a teacher,” she says. “I teach at SUCHANDSUCH ELEMENTARY in HARD-KNOCKS LOW INCOME NEIGHBORHOOD and nearly all the kids get free or reduced lunch which is so bad that many of them don’t eat and throw in the trash. This is such amazing news. I can’t wait to share this with my colleagues.”
Until this moment, I had been feeling a bit like a puppet character in The Neighborhood of Make-Believe on the public television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Surely, I thought, I’ll wake up from this wild dream and get back to the regularly scheduled programming. But there was Gale, her chest now visibly puffed and filled with hope, a kind of ‘You had me at hello, chef’ kind of look that spoke volumes as we prepared for our first downward facing dog.
Midair, I carry Gale and her students in my mind, the possibilities swirling, as if we already belonged to one another.
Friday, the big day, arrives in no time. It begins with a breakfast hosted by anti-hunger organization Share Our Strength (SOS). I arrive with Philadelphia cookbook author Tara Mataraza Desmond. It’s just minutes before 8. We enter an enormous hotel banquet room, which is packed with hundreds of people, most of whom are wearing chef’s coats.
I survey the room. I’ve never seen so many white jackets in one place, and neither has anyone else, I reckon. It is truly a sight to behold, literally a breakfast of champions. The speakers think so, too.
SOS Executive Director Bill Shore, greets the room with “Today there will be the greatest concentration of culinary power seen anywhere in the world.”
Professor Janet Poppendieck, author of “Free For All: Fixing School Food in America,” pumps up the crowd with “This is your moment in American history.”
And as he steps up to the podium, White House assistant chef Sam Kass looks genuinely awestruck: “Today is truly a historic day in food.”
The breakfast is a prelude/pep rally leading up to Mrs. Obama’s speech on the south lawn, the moment we’ve all been waiting for — and traveled from around the country to experience. We hear from chef-volunteers in Denver, New Orleans and New York, who share lessons learned and success stories from their respective adopted schools. From Ellen Teller of the Food Research and Action Center, we get an update on the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act, now known as the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. (Sponsored by Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), the Act will provide $4.5 billion over 10 years for school meals, which includes an extra 6 cents per meal per student. Presently, 31 million children participate in the National School Lunch Program. Supporters are hoping the bill will go to the full Senate for a vote before summer recess.)
The room fills with applause and feels electric. I’ve got a tingle in my heart. These folks have succeeded in inspiring me and my colleagues, but at this moment, we are a group of 500, a sliver of what it will take to place one chef in all 95,000 public schools nationwide. There’s a call to action but no tangible blueprint, but I’m told it’s in the works.
The chefs stand up, and once again, the room is a beehive of white-jacketed activity. The hotel’s multi-storied escalators become a train of white, and I am once again mesmerized by the symbolic solidarity. The pedestrian convoy makes its way to the southeast side of the White House, where it forms a queue a few blocks long and strong. It is a broiling hot day, and nobody seems to mind. The chefs take photos, exchange hugs and kisses and revel in the moments that await.
Once past various security checkpoints, we find ourselves at the White House garden, where broccoli, leeks, chard, peas, radishes, lettuces are front, center and bursting with color. I smile at the placard that reads “peas” and say out loud, “Presidential peas.”
We are led to the seating area that faces the south side of the White House. We sit, we wait in anticipation and we do everything to ignore the heat of the blazing sun.
White Assistant chef Sam Kass goes first, followed by DC chef Todd Gray and the principal of a DC elementary school. And then it’s the first lady’s turn. I listen to everything she says, but what will forever stick in my mind are these remarks:
You know the joy of cooking for others, that passion that you get, the sense of camaraderie, the understanding and fulfillment that comes with seeing folks gathering around a dinner table, not just enjoying a meal, but enjoying fellowship. That is power.
You know the central role that food plays in the moments that make us happiest. Food is always there, whether it’s at a birthday party, or Thanksgiving dinner, or quiet moments with friends. Food is at the core of what makes life wonderful.
There’s more to tell, but I’ll stop for now and compile my thoughts on other pieces of the day in another post. One thing’s for sure: I can’t wait to catch up with Gale and figure out a way — to move to her school.