Meet Sam Kass, former White House Chef and Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition under President Obama
A discussion on the role of chefs, public policy, and compassion.
Eat a Little Better: Great Flavor, Good Health, Better World:
A Cookbook by Sam Kass
Food entrepreneur Sam Kass is a former White House Chef and Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition. He is the founder of TROVE and a partner in Acre Venture Partners. Kass joined the White House kitchen staff in 2009 as assistant chef and, in 2010, became the Food Initiative Coordinator. During his White House tenure, he took on several additional roles including Executive Director of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign and senior White House Policy Advisor for Nutrition. In 2011, Fast Company included Sam in their list of “100 Most Creative People,” and in 2012, he helped create the American Chef Corps, which is dedicated to promoting diplomacy through culinary initiatives. He is also an MIT Media lab fellow, entrepreneur, and advisor.
Thank you, Sam, for inspiring many and being a real change maker!
By Sam Kass as told to Theodora Fontas, Chefs for Impact’s special contributor
Podcast host of #GettingToTheRoot
You worked with former first lady @MichelleObama in creating the Let’s Move Campaign. Could you explain the mission and vision of the campaign?
“Our country is struggling to nourish a generation of children in a way that is going to set them up for success. Michelle Obama first discovered these issues because she is a mother. As a well-resourced, highly educated mom, she recognized the importance in having her children grow up healthy. She questioned herself on how difficult it must be in more precarious households. As she appreciated what the change in her life meant for her family’s life and health, she realized there is an opportunity to address these issues nationally. The vision was to change the way kids think about food and nutrition. The idea is bringing together all the policy levels, stakeholders, and businesses needed to try to make it easier for parents to raise healthy kids. We’ve got so much done with school nutrition, and getting the business community galvanized, as well as starting big partnerships. There is a long list of accomplishments in shifting the culture in the country for which we are very proud of. Yet still a lot of work remains. We lost some time over the last few years but hopefully we are back on track now.”
Why is something as simple as gardening and growing vegetables so impactful on children’s health and education?
“For someone who led the nutrition program for six years at the White House, I have a pretty clear sense about the power of policy and the role it has to play. The government is not dictating what ends up on our plates, except in some areas, like schools. The government influences it for sure, but for the most part what we end up eating is a product of our culture, first and foremost. I also think it’s a private sector endeavor between farmers and food companies. The hard work is really shifting our culture to care more about nutrition. The White House garden was very powerful as it was very symbolic. Growing eggplants and zucchinis and seeing images of the first lady in the dirt surrounded by kids was a very powerful message to send to the country and the world. What we eat matters. How we grow up matters. Above all, the next generation matters.”
What in your opinion is the appropriate reach of the government and public policy in getting people to change their eating habits?
“There is a healthy balance on the government’s role because there are some presidents you may not want to follow their vision towards food. I think there are certain areas where taxpayers’ dollars must be spent to support the health and well-being of the people. The government has a real role of safety. It should be focusing on research and making sure that we are heavily investing in technology to improve the current climate change situation. We must invest a lot just to maintain the status quo as the chances of improvement are scarce. We need a lot more warranty on how we provide a stable, affordable, nutrient dense food supply while reducing the impact of our food system on climate change.”
As a partner at Acre Ventures, what opportunities are you seeing and what do you think needs to happen to innovate the food and agriculture space?
“We are a mission-driven fund focusing on human health, climate change, and environmental health in the food system. There is so much happening right now in terms of innovation from gene editing to microbiomes. I’m currently spending a lot of time on soil carbon and carbon sequestration. Farmers must start shifting their practices towards a more sustainable system of production. There are opportunities where technologies can measure soil carbon more effectively and cheaply, which can increase farmer capacity to sequester more carbon in the soil. I believe we are just at the beginning of a transformation that I hope is going to change the world for the better.”
Food is so intimately tied to culture; it is people’s identities. How do you take that into account when trying to get people to eat more sustainably?
“I think it’s the most important question. We must be very careful when we start talking about the ‘right’ food to eat. The humanness of this issue is very important. That’s why being a chef was important when I did the policy work, because producing and consuming food is deeply ingrained in how people receive your message and understand it. I think we must be very thoughtful of that; how do you help move people in the right direction without demonizing them nor the food that they consume. We created ‘My Plate’, a simple illustration that gives you a basic sense of what your balance on a plate should look like. We shared some basic yet important messages that the government has never said before. The idea is that in that plate, we allow anybody from any culture to understand the proportionality of fruits & vegetables vs whole grain vs protein needed and translating it into whatever is relevant to their culture. Food is love and it is how we care about each other. There is no perfect way to eat.”
You also helped start the American Chef Corps, which was part of the state diplomatic culinary partnership that puts together a group of chefs who act as food focus statements. What role do chefs have in the fight for a more sustainable food system?
“The idea of this program is to exchange values and shared experiences from chefs from all over the world. I think chefs are one of the most important communities that can impact change. We sit between the producers and the eaters. Chefs set trends and they create value. Just think about the relationship between a doctor and a patient. We will listen to our doctor when it comes to what kind of medicine we should take. People listen to chefs in terms of what they are eating and trust them as a knowledgeable resource. Chefs have a real responsibility to dig in the issues around climate change and health. They must figure out their role to help move the issue forward, and make sure people are eating more nourishing food that is not degrading our ability to nourish future generations. Chefs are increasingly playing that role, which I think is absolutely critical.”
Your book ‘Eat a Little Better: Great Flavor, Good Health, Better World: A Cookbook’ talks about your experience, your path to the White House, and the intersection of food, sustainability, and health. What are the biggest takeaways from your book that people can employ in their own lives?
“One of the major principles that guides us is: ‘We eat what we see’. When you see a cheeseburger sign on the highway, your brain will automatically send you a signal that makes you desire that cheeseburger. That’s why marketing works. What’s in our homes also shapes dramatically what we consume. Fundamentally, a lot of people care about food and nutrition. Right now, statistics show that 80% of Americans are trying to eat better but less than 20% report eating better. That’s because at home, we surround ourselves with these choices and we ultimately end up eating them. Afterwards, we feel bad about it and we get into this negative cycle. Replace cookies with dried fruits and nuts on your kitchen counter. Having a plan for weekly meals is also very helpful. Be conscious when you go to the grocery store, so it’s easier at home to make healthy choices.”
Follow Chef @samkassdc
Buy Sam’s book HERE