Michelle Obama cultivating food policy

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First lady Michelle Obama. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)

WASHINGTON - It was the ultimate photo op - 36 smiling fifth graders eating a healthful meal they'd cooked themselves at a picnic table in the first lady's garden. The story line was as simple as it was seductive: They came. They planted. They harvested.

In three short months, Michelle Obama had accomplished what other food advocates could only dream about. Good food was no longer just virtuous. It was cool.

That was easy. Now what?

That's the question Obama's food-policy team is working on this summer. The garden was intended "as a jumping-off point for getting to what sometimes can be a complicated conversation about how we eat [and] the food choices we make," Obama policy director Jocelyn Frye said in an interview. But as it moves beyond the symbolic to those meatier matters, the White House is grappling with the very issues that have challenged the so-called good-food movement for decades: How do you simplify and sell a new way of eating?

That isn't so easy. Food - unlike, say, the space program - is a fundamental and intimate part of everyone's life. It's culturally, politically and economically complicated. And there's a fine line between government involvement and paternalism: It's one thing to educate people about the importance of a healthful diet and quite another to tell them what to eat and where to buy it. The garden has been an unqualified success; the challenge now is to capitalize on Obama's newfound clout to improve school lunches and access to fresh fruits and vegetables - and to make how we eat an integral part of the national health-care debate.

The plan's main architects are Obama; Frye, 45, her Harvard Law School classmate; and Sam Kass, 29, a White House assistant chef and food-initiative coordinator. Part of the East Wing strategy is to keep doing what they're doing - make fresh, healthful food seem accessible, even normal.

Obama often makes a point of telling her own story. As a working mother, she often took her daughters out to eat several times a week or ordered a pizza for dinner. When the girls began to gain weight, she says, her pediatrician suggested she rethink how the family was eating. By making a "small change in our family's diet and adding more fresh produce for my family, Barack, the girls, me, we all started to notice over a very short period of time that we felt much better," Obama said at the harvest event.

To create that down-to-earth feeling, Obama has invited local schoolchildren, not celebrity chefs, to the garden. She also has appeared at soup kitchens and community health centers to talk about the importance of a healthful diet. Produce from the garden is donated to Miriam's Kitchen, which feeds Washington's homeless.

"Accessibility and affordability have always been part of the message," Frye said. "It's why we partner with elementary-school kids. You pierce through all the constituencies and say, 'It's about kids.' "

Pioneers of the local-food movement have long struggled with perceptions of elitism. Critics mocked their breathless praise of farmstead cheeses or the ultimate roast chicken, painting them as out-of-touch, arugula-loving yuppies.

"Michelle has used her position in a way that has made people realize this is a very simple, very American impulse," said Josh Viertel, president of Slow Food USA, which promotes small farmers and artisan producers. "What they're doing is normalizing something that should be normal."

Obama hasn't escaped criticism. In a recent op-ed column in the New York Times, food writer Amanda Hesser chided the first lady for implying that cooking is a chore when she breezily admitted that she was happy to leave the cooking to White House chefs. "Terrific local ingredients aren't much use if people are cooking less and less," Hesser wrote. "Cooking is to gardening what parenting is to childbirth."

Frye and Kass counter that inspiring families to cook is part of the White House plan. Earlier this month, for example, Obama invited graduates of the Brainfood program, a Washington nonprofit that teaches life skills through cooking, to help prepare for a White House luau and the Fourth of July celebration. Nineteen students shucked corn, washed lettuce, and made strawberry tiramisu.

"We're really trying to highlight that it all leads to the table," Kass said.

Kass also is working on a list of White House seasonal recipes that "is going to be a bigger part of what we do," he said. "We are exploring new avenues to get real, practical recipes into the hands of mothers and fathers."

What the White House isn't doing is as significant as what it is. For example, the first lady has not championed local food. She has mentioned it - "If it's fresh and grown locally, it's probably going to taste better," she said on the June harvest day - but focuses overall on freshness and seasonality.

Indeed, a key part of the White House strategy is to stay focused. Food reformers are working to change agricultural subsidies, environmental regulations, nutrition standards, and food labeling. The White House, Kass said, recognizes that all are important and interconnected. But to succeed, Obama is highlighting the issues that most directly affect children: "We're focusing on kids, even though food and health are issues we all face," Kass said.

Obama is taking August off and will relaunch her efforts in earnest in September. That is back-to-school time and when the debate will heat up in Congress over funding for child-nutrition programs, including school breakfasts and lunches. Staffers say Obama will continue to try to link the personal to the political by gardening, cooking, and eating with students.

Said Slow Food's Viertel: "If they can let people see a family meal, if people see that the busiest man in the world takes time to sit down with his kids for dinner, that could have an incredible impact."