Sam Kass, White House Chef, in the White House garden.
(Photo: H. Darr Beiser, USAT)
WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) -- White House chef Sam Kass eyed the corn ripening in the garden tucked in a corner of the South Lawn but decided to pluck a cucumber off the vine instead.
"We had corn two days ago," he explained.
Vegetables and fruits are on the menu for the first family and for kids across the country who are heading back to school, a cause for Michelle Obama and Kass, the Obamas' family chef and executive director of the first lady's Let's Move! initiative. In an interview Friday with USA TODAY's Capital Download, Kass discussed the impact the campaign against childhood obesity seems to be having.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made headlines last week with the release of a study that showed obesity rates among low-income preschoolers declining for the first time in decades - down in 17 states and up in only three. On the same day, Gallup reported that the percentage of Americans who went to fast-food restaurants at least once a week had dropped by 9 percentage points since 2006.
"I think we're right at a tipping point," Kass said, shedding his jacket as he sat at a picnic table in the sweltering August heat. The White House garden, the first big vegetable patch on the grounds since Eleanor Roosevelt's victory garden during World War II, produces about a thousand pounds of produce a year. "Last year, fruit and vegetable consumption was up 6%, which came as a great surprise. We're seeing much greater awareness across the board about what we're eating and how much we're eating and trying to make sure we're getting balanced meals on our kids' plates."
Federal regulations that require more fruit and vegetables in the free and subsidized school lunch menus and reduce the permitted levels of salt and fat went into effect last year, to mixed reviews. Some school systems found students shunning healthier options and bemoaning the loss of cafeteria favorites.
The Agriculture Department last week also announced regulations that take effect next year mandating healthier snacks in school vending machines.
"It's important to remember, school chefs don't have a lot of resources," Kass said. "They're working in tight conditions, sometimes trying to serve hundreds of kids in a mere matter of minutes, oftentimes. And figuring out how to do this in a way that the food tastes good ... is a real challenge. But I'm totally confident that we're well on our way to solving this, and I expect a much smoother year this year."
He quoted Michelle Obama's standard retort. "Kids ... complain about math and science, too," he said. "Does that mean we're going to stop teaching them math and science?"
He hears no complaints from Obama daughters Sasha and Malia about the vegetable-heavy dinners they get at home. Asked whether they ever objected to being served, say, brussel sprouts or kale, he said: "I'm sure the kids would have liked to say that a few times with some of the things that are getting made, but they eat what they're served. So says Mom."
President Obama insisted last week on NBC's Tonight Show that his favorite food was broccoli.
"Broccoli is a go-to staple here," Kass confirmed. "He likes his greens. I mean, he'll eat any kind of green vegetable. There's nothing that's not in play." For Obama, he typically blanches the broccoli or sautes it with a little olive oil.
In general, family meals are kept simple. "You know, it's a family that has kids. It's important when you're in a home that it doesn't feel like a restaurant. I think they don't want to feel that they're eating out every night."
Desserts are reserved for Friday and Saturday nights.
The shaved-head Kass, 33, has become something of a celebrity chef. He chatted with Elmo in the White House kitchen on PBS' Sesame Street, was rated No. 3 last month on The Hill newspaper's list of Washington's most beautiful people, and saw his dates with MSNBC anchor Alex Wagner chronicled in last week's Washington Post. He played golf with the president Sunday at Martha's Vineyard.
While his claim to fame is as a champion for healthy heating, Kass admits to a culinary indulgence now and then. "I can't resist a good chicken wing, a good Buffalo wing," he says. "All this healthy-eating stuff - I just crumble in the face of a good wing."