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From the Kitchen to Halls of Power

When James Beard died at 81 in 1985, he had sown the seeds of America’s field to table food movement that nourishes today’s thriving farmers markets. He had the first television cooking show in 1946, wrote influential cookbooks, and ran a cooking school for 30 years. He’s considered by many to be the father of American cuisine. And if you’re a chef, there is no higher honor than an award from the James Beard Foundation, named for the nation’s original foodie.

The foundation also honors leaders in the food movement each year, recognizing critics of large-scale agriculture like the novelist, poet, and farmer, Wendell Berry, and innovators like the California chef and restaurant owner, Alice Waters, who helped launch the upscale natural livestock business, Niman Ranch, by promoting Niman meats on her menus.

This October 19, the Foundation will honor five more influential people in food and agriculture at a ceremony in New York City. One of them is Sam Kass, former chef and senior policy adviser for nutrition at the White House. 

Kass acknowledges that he’s likely the most influential White House chef ever, at least when it comes to food policy. Kass, who was a friend of the Obamas when the first family lived in Chicago, was hired in 2005 as their personal chef when Barack Obama was elected to the Senate. He followed them to the White House, where he cooked for the Obamas, managed the White House garden, and was influential in starting and running Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!" program to combat childhood obesity. He also played a role in crafting a more nutritious school lunch program. 

According to The James Beard Foundation, Kass is being recognized “for his work toward nationwide food-policy initiatives that focus on sustainable and nutritious ingredients, and efforts to raise awareness of childhood obesity, hunger, and nutrition issues.”

Kass, who left the White House in 2014, this summer took a job with NBC as the network’s senior food analyst. 

Recently he reflected on his White House years in a telephone interview with Agriculture.com.

The most surprising thing about working in the White House, he said, is “just how hard it is to get anything accomplished. The stakes are so high, that every single thing you do is just very hard. Any decision has so many different variables, so many aspects."

When asked what the biggest change was from his work, he said, “I think we played a major role in shifting the culture around food and health and sustainability in the country. The other main one would be around school nutrition."

The White House kitchen garden drew a lot of publicity, especially when groups of school children were invited to help plant or harvest.

When asked if that was the administration’s most popular food initiative, Kass said it was widely emulated around the world.

"I think the foundation of all of our work started in the garden. And I think it provided a powerful, symbolic platform to do our work,” he said.

Other initiatives were popular, he said, including the FDA’s announcement this year that it’s banning the use of nearly all transfats in foods over the next three years. Kass believes the FDA rule to require labeling of calories in foods on menus was also popular, but that has been delayed for at least a year, partly due to pushback in Congress and lobbying by restaurants against it.

Kass knows that more nutritious school lunches haven’t been well received by all students, but said that "I think school nutrition in terms of parents was wildly popular."

Some school districts in rural areas haven’t been pleased by the requirements, but Kass doesn’t single out any one food issue as being the most controversial during his time working with the administration.

"Taking on a lot of the aspects of the way we were eating is often controversial,” he said. "I think the whole thing was controversial from the start. Everything we did was controversial."

Even a White House campaign to encourage students to drink more water drew criticism from activists who wanted a stronger campaign against drinking soda pop in schools, he said.

Controversial or not, Kass believes most of the changes encouraged by the White House will remain after Barack Obama leaves office.

"I think most of the stuff we've done will stick,” he said. “I feel pretty confident we're going to hold on to all of those policy wins."

This is the fifth year the James Beard Foundation is giving leadership awards. Here are the other recipients and the reasons for their recognition:

Don Bustos

Farmer and codirector, American Friends Service Committee 

For his work in support of farmers’ rights and education, and efforts to include farmers of color in the national food movement. 

 

Eliot Coleman

Farmer, author, agricultural researcher, and educator

For the impact his more than 40 years of innovative farming techniques and extensive writings on the subject of organic agriculture have had on the field and on our country’s food system.

 

Saru Jayaraman

Cofounder and codirector, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United); director, Food Labor Research Center at University of California, Berkeley

For her research, policy work, and efforts to create just workplace environments for all restaurant employees. 

Bryant Terry

Chef, author, food justice activist

For his efforts to raise awareness of food-justice issues and to empower youth to be active in creating a healthy, just, and sustainable food system.

 

 

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