A White House Chef Defends the First Lady

Marion Nestle, the author of Food Politics, recently got a reminder that food is indeed political, right up to the nation’s highest office. On November 30, the first lady made a speech in which she announced that her Let’s Move campaign (on childhood obesity) would have a renewed focus on physical fitness, to combat “the crisis of inactivity that we see among our kids.”

Eddie Gehman Kohan, the blogger better known as Obama Foodorama who writes exclusively on White House food issues, called this a “fundamental shift” in the first lady’s campaign. Anyone who has been paying attention lately knows that when it comes to kids, exercise is a far easier issue to promote than say, curbing junk food marketing to kids. (The recent uproar over Congress declaring pizza a vegetable being just one sad example.)

So it should have come as no surprise when the nation’s leading expert on food politics asked on her blog, Let’s Move Campaign gives up on healthy diets for kids? Nestle made a reasonable argument for why the first lady’s turn to exercise (apparently away from food) was troubling. The post quoted from Mrs. Obama herself at length, with Nestle concluding that: “everyone loves to promote physical activity” because it’s “not politically loaded” while “trying to get the food industry to budge on product formulations and marketing to kids is an uphill battle that confronts intense, highly paid lobbying.”

Apparently the White House reads the Food Politics blog, closely. The next day, Nestle got a call from Sam Kass, assistant chef and senior policy adviser for healthy food initiatives at the White House. As she explains in this follow-up post, White House insists “eat better” is still part of Let’s Move, Kass called, “objecting strongly (an understatement) to my post.” Kass explained that exercise was not a shift away from food, but rather a logical expansion based on the “five pillars” of Let’s Move.

Nestle wrote that she didn’t remember anything about “pillars” but looked them up on the Let’s Move website. Seeing them, she acknowledged that, “in the broader context of the Let’s Move pillars, a focus on physical activity makes sense.” Still, Nestle added, the first lady should have been more clear as “her speech implied that she had given up on healthy eating because it is too difficult.”

But the scuffle didn’t end there.

On Friday, apparently prompted by Nestle’s two posts, blogger Obama Foodorama posted “Let’s Move! 101: A Primer for Beginners.” She began by saying that Nestle had made the “shocking, purely speculative proclamation” that the first lady was moving away from food, but that after the Sam Kass phone call, she had “recanted” with her follow-up post. But when I asked Nestle if she had in fact recanted, here is what she told me:

I wouldn’t call my post a recant by any means. Read it and decide for yourself. I would refer you to Eddie’s original post on the speech, which she described as a “fundamental shift” in the direction of the Let’s Move campaign. Let’s Move has been there all along, she says. So is this a fundamental shift or not? Time will tell, I suppose.

Postscript: Friday’s post by Obama Foodorama has been edited to no longer contain the wording cited above. Any reference at all to Marion Nestle has been removed, without explanation.

3 Responses to “A White House Chef Defends the First Lady”

  1. In a post that predated Food Politics’ post by several days, I also asked the question, “Is Mrs. Obama Afraid to Discuss the Real Causes of Childhood Obesity?” (http://www.thelunchtray.com/is-mrs-obama-afraid-to-discuss-the-real-causes-of-childhood-obesity/) I’ve therefore followed the scuffle between Food Politics and the White House quite closely, and I feel Marion Nestle’s take on the recent silence by the East Wing on food issues (turning instead to talk of physical activity) is absolutely on target. Let’s face it – with a looming presidential election, the Obama administration does not need to further alienate potential donors, nor does it need to draw right wing heat (as Mrs. O has in the past) that it supports “Nanny state” interventions when it comes to what Americans eat. I’m glad Ms. Nestle is sticking to her guns and refusing to “recant.”

  2. [...] Michele Simon is a public health lawyer specializing in industry marketing and lobbying tactics. She is the author of Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back. A version of this post appeared on her website Dec. 10, 2011.  [...]

  3. [...] Nestle recently dared to question the first lady’s renewed emphasis on exercise, she got set straight by White House chef and Let’s Move advisor Sam Kass; that’s how touchy this subject [...]

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