As former Assistant Chef at the White House, Sam Kass believes in good-tasting food that is also good for you. So upon discussing the current state of the American food system, he finds himself at odds. Just a few minutes in to a question and answer session at Harvard University, Kass blurted, “schools are serving sh*t” and “grocery stores are cr*p.”
However, the self-proclaimed former skeptic says he has toned down since landing his position as President Barrack Obama’s Senior Policy Adviser for Nutrition Policy, and Executive Director for First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative – a dual role that requires balancing what he termed, “nutritionists versus priests and rabbis.”
On October 9th, 2014, Sam Kass visited the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health for Voices in Leadership, where he took time to defend recent actions by the White House and the Let’s Move! initiative, in an attempt to offer hope for the future of United States food and nutrition policy.
The discussion comes just in time, as news surfaces that Kass is preparing to hang up his White House apron after six years of service.
School Lunch and Let’s Move!: Moving Issues Into the Mainstream
The 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) is considered a cornerstone of the Kass’ Let’s Move! initiative by updating nutrition standards for school meals for the next 5 years. However, Kass’ work in policy actually begins with culture. To promote the HHFKA, Kass went as far as appearing on national T.V. as a judge for a special episode of Chopped to empower school chefs. “School chefs eat what they serve, and don’t serve what they don’t eat,” Kass said, reinstating his strong belief that culture change is equally as necessary as policy change.
Despite these efforts, Kass was denied entry to the School Nutrition Association’s conference in Denver earlier this year, over rising debates surrounding the Act. Partly to blame is the poor relationship between federal and state government, forcing Let’s Move! to roll out programming on the local level. “If I had 100 million dollars,” Kass stated, “I would spend about 60% of it on regional coordination.”
“But if Americans can at least connect the food they eat to their own health,” Kass continued, “that is an accomplishment.” He remains dissatisfied with the White House’s relationship the SNA, but hopes that schools will recognize the value of the HHFKA over the next few years.
Prescriptive vs. Self-Deterministic: WIC, SNAP, Access, and Behavioral Economics
While targeting culture hints at behavior change, Kass is also concerned with preexisting structural issues, including food access. He is determined that targeting schools and retailers is necessary to ensure good nutrition, thus, protecting the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Women, Infants and Children program (WIC) is essential. However, whether supplemental nutrition programs should be prescriptive in nature, as with WIC, or allow for people to choose foods for themselves, closer to SNAP, remains a debate.
“There is a core truth to each side,” Kass admitted. Currently, SNAP dollars can be used towards purchasing potentially “unhealthy foods,” but a more prescriptive approach for SNAP, as with WIC, may leave some communities with nothing to buy. Regardless, Kass noted that there is no evidence that WIC promotes the availability of unhealthy foods by retailers, and no evidence that SNAP shifts user consumption patterns. He applauded WIC for making purchasing of fresh fruits and vegetables easier.
Trans Fat, GMO’s and Added Sugar: A “Complicated Relationship” With the FDA
Similar to passing of the HHFKA, the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) proposal to remove partially hydrogenated oils as a “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) substance is considered a landmark public health victory. The proposal brings the U.S. one step closer to banning dietary artificial trans fats in processed foods. However, a “complicated relationship” between the FDA and the White House makes for passing similar proposals in the future just as difficult.
Kass admitted that the FDA is not designed to run a modern-day food system; it is under-staffed, under-resourced, and simply too slow. He agrees that the regulatory oversight needs major overhaul, but he was not quick to accept criticisms against the FDA, most notably, debates surrounding genetically modified organisms (GMO’s). Kass finds potential in the technology, and stands with the notion that GMO’s pose “no direct harm to human health,” though hinting that there may be environmental impact, but Kass made connection between humans and the environment. He is concerned with “myths” surrounding GMO’s, but remains confident the conversation surrounding GMO’s will dissipate in about 20 years.
The “F” Word
The Farm Bill was originally designed to address hunger and malnutrition. Today, the “F” word in the field of food and nutrition policy has grown to the same level of popularity as the Affordable Care Act in the field of healthcare. The Farm Bill has slowly evolved to encompass chronic disease prevention, sustainable agriculture, food safety, and farm workers’ rights.
Despite much delay, Kass believes that the Bill sets the table for better bills in the future, having included provisions such as crop insurance for farmers. Most importantly, Kass admits that criticizing the Farm Bill will do no good. Notably, he disagrees with outspoken food activist and journalist, Michael Pollan, in his criticism over government subsidy of commodity crops. Kass claimed that commodity crops are more favorable to grow because farmers can grow them more efficiently, not because they are subsidized. However, Kass did not bring up the former mentioned topic of GMO’s when discussing crop efficiency.
The Department of Defense?
Ironically, little conversation regarding nutrition and food policy is posed towards the Department of Defense, the largest food purchaser in the world. Today, obesity has become the number one cause for disqualification of new recruits from the military, leading to the establishment of pre-boot camp. Currently, a pilot study is overseeing the overhaul of 10 bases in their effort to raise food standards, eliminate sugar-sweetened beverages, and implement a traffic light nutrition system. Evaluation results will allow for dissemination of findings, but what remains difficult is selling the concept, “We need to get our kids healthy so what we can send them to war,” Kass said, “how do you market that?”
There is no doubt that culture change is necessary to act in tandem with food and nutrition policy. However, moving the issue into the mainstream also means moving the responsibility, maybe unfairly, to the individual. To ease healthy choices, efforts are under way to address food access. However, the battle between prescriptive and self-deterministic programs will persist, and not all structural issues are being addressed. For example, fathers are not yet eligible for WIC in certain states.
The White House is proving to be effective in food and nutrition policy when it partners with industry, as evident by the national trans fat ban, but addressing this century’s emerging issues related to added sugars and GMO’s will require a major reform of the FDA. The FDA’s decision on GMO’s is especially important for the future of the Farm Bill, that struggles to find a balance between crop efficiency and food safety.
But surely, if we can find solutions for the Department of Defense, the single largest food purchaser in the world, we can do the same for the greater U.S.
Needless to say, many questions arise when America’s chef too begins to design America’s menu. What role, if any, does the federal government have in changing the tide in food and nutrition policy? And do Americans like to be served, or to serve themselves?
But the most important question of all was asked towards the end of the discussion, when someone stood up to ask, “What is the First Family’s favorite meal?” to which Kass cooly replied, “That is top secret information.”