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First lady to chefs: "It's got to be a collaboration"

Michelle Obama addressed hundreds of chefs on the White House lawn. (Alex Wong -- Getty Images)

More than 500 chefs gathered at the White House today to join Michelle Obama's newest effort to fight childhood obesity, Chefs Move To Schools.

The chefs, including national stars such as Rachael Ray, Tom Colicchio and Cat Cora, and an army of unknowns who work in restaurants, food banks and culinary schools, hailed from 37 states. Each has accepted a White House mission to adopt a school in his or her community and work with parents, teachers and cafeteria workers to educate children about food and nutrition. That might include developing healthful recipes for cafeterias, offering cooking lessons or helping a school to plant a garden.

"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," Obama said, referring to the traditional chef uniform. "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."

So far, nearly 1,000 chefs have signed on to the program, which was spearheaded by White House Assistant Chef Sam Kass. Obama said she hoped to inspire thousands more to get involved, one for each of the 95,000 U.S. schools.

But while she hopes to spark a grass-roots revolution, Obama was careful to caution the chefs that change would require patience. "Just like you wouldn't be thrilled if someone came in your restaurant and told you what to do, we're not asking you guys to go into schools and take over," she told the chefs, who were sweltering under a hot sun on the lawn. Cafeteria workers are "going to need your support. But it's got to be a collaboration."

Chefs heard similar warnings at a two-hour morning session organized by anti-hunger organization Share Our Strength. A series of speakers, from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and New York Public Schools Executive Chef Jorge Collazo to school lunch scholar Janet Poppendieck, spelled out the challenges in reforming the system.

For example, it might seem like a good idea to ask teachers to eat with their students, said Poppendieck. But many teacher union contracts specifically mandate that teachers get a break during lunch. Custodians, she noted, are paid by a separate department, so chefs might make enemies by bringing kids into a kitchen and making a mess.

"You'd never think of implementing a salad bar as guerrilla warfare. But that's what it is. Kid by kid. School by school," said Collazo.

Added Tony Geraci, the director of food service at the Baltimore City Public Schools and a former chef: "The world of restaurants and the world of K-12 food are different planets. Chefs who come to school food are going to have a hard learning curve."

Chefs said they were undeterred by the hard work ahead. A team of Washington chefs has already begun working in city schools. The White House event included a who's who of the city's best-known tocques.: Will Artley of Evening Star Café, Kyle Bailey and Tiffany MacIsaac of Birch & Barley, R.J. Cooper of Vidalia and Peter Smith of PS 7's, among others.

"Just show me which school needs me," said Artley. "I'm ready to go."

-- Jane Black

By Jane Black  |  June 4, 2010; 4:15 PM ET
Categories:  Food Politics  | Tags: Childhood obesity, Jane Black, Michelle Obama, nutrition, school lunch  
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Quite a change from the, "Just say NO to Broccoli" and "Bring on the Fried Pork Rinds" of the Bush years.

Posted by: thebobbob | June 4, 2010 5:49 PM | Report abuse

Can Michelle Obama ever stop trying to be my mom? I can very well chose what I want to eat, and what I want my family to eat. Her yuppie obsessions are her own neuroses - not mine. If I wanted an English nanny, I'd hire one.

Posted by: iphonegrrl | June 4, 2010 5:54 PM | Report abuse

Wha... Rachel Ray????

Is she not the one who's made a career of telling people to put Cheez Wiz and Ritz Crackers in their salads???

She should have been banned from the vegetable garden.

Posted by: brickerd | June 4, 2010 7:56 PM | Report abuse

I have to eat school lunch when I forget to bring one myself-- and I'm ticked every time, because it is disgusting. When I was little, the lunch ladies actually cooked. Not anymore-- today, they warm up food they pull out of a box from a freezer. Please, please, please improve school lunch!

Posted by: reine668 | June 4, 2010 8:19 PM | Report abuse

When British Chef Jamie Oliver asked the White House to get involved with his US "Food Revolution" school lunch campaign a year or so ago, his request was summarily dismissed. Yet now Mrs. Obama extols the virtues of healthy school lunches. What's changed between now and then? This effort could be much further along if Mrs. Obama had been willing to give credit to the originator of the concept rather than waiting a year and saying "oh, look at me."

What's the deal? Don't the Obamas like Brits? Chef Oliver? Or does everything have to originate from the Obamas in order for it to have any credence?

Posted by: mtater | June 4, 2010 9:53 PM | Report abuse

Yeah, you are right, its too bad Cheney isn't still in charge. He'd make good use of those Louisiana pelicans in the school lunches (or lunches for servicemen who the Cheney/Bush crowd also took such good care of). I can just hear him now telling people to "stop whining and add some vinegar!"

Posted by: SoCali | June 5, 2010 11:48 AM | Report abuse

Keep this section alive.

It nourshes us all.

What would my daily meals look or taste like without The Post's Food Section's counsel.

A Loyal and Happy Reader.

Posted by: MOONBLATT | June 5, 2010 11:27 PM | Report abuse

So here's the story. Michelle failed to read the labels on the "lunchables" she was feeding her children. One child, as she announced to the world, was getting fat. Now she has photo ops and PR about this fight against "obesity" which lies with the parents and the choices they make, including food, video games vs. physical activity etc etc.
There are hungry, very hungry children in America. But Ms. Obama can only see as far as her plump daughter. She even wanted food companies to make "better" food--what, so parents wouldn't have to bother deciding what to feed their children? And does she even know how much more "healthy" food costs? Priced any fresh berries lately? Besides, she was supposed to have as her cause, she said, helping families of soldiers. So much for that. A normal person would have realized she was making her daughter fat by making poor food choices--seriously, she said this--and been embarrassed, and quietly made the changes. Now it's a dog and pony show, a distraction (supposedly) for the horrors of the oil leak, a trillion dollar war, a still tanking economy...yeah, those poor people living on soda crackers and off-off-off brand peanut butter better watch it--all that sodium and fat, y'know.

Posted by: Beckola | June 6, 2010 8:19 AM | Report abuse

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