“Look at these...beautiful, purple. We just harvested these too.” Sam Kass brushes away the leaves to reveal Japanese eggplants.
It’s a beautiful summer day in Washington, DC. Instead of toiling in a government office building, Kass is digging in a backyard garden. And it's not just any garden; he’s in the White House kitchen garden. Kass is a White House assistant chef, working his dream job.
“I get to come down every night and I’ll harvest something pretty much for dinner. This little thing down here, you see it?” he asks, holding a tiny green pepper. The seeds came from Thomas Jefferson’s garden at Monticello. “It will turn red, but you can eat it green or red. That thing packs a punch,” Kass says smiling broadly. “Don’t let the size fool you.”
The 32-year old Chicago native has known the First Family for many years; his father was Malia’s 5th grade teacher. But he’s more than a chef. He travels with the Obamas on vacation and is ever-present when the First Lady talks about healthy eating.
In addition to having the title of Assistant Chef, he’s also a White House Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives - a job that has put him in the spotlight as a spokesperson and earned him a spot on People Magazines 100 Most Beautiful People and Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in Business 2011.
“This is now our 4th season,” Kass says. “We have a lot of corn. All of the summer stuff. The cucumbers are going bananas. We have beans and squash and lots of tomatoes. We have lots of potatoes, sweet potatoes. The strawberries are coming. The blueberries are looking good. So we’re doing great.”
The garden has been a signature initiative of the First Lady who has used it to start a conversation on healthy eating for children. It’s a learning garden and school groups are frequently invited to visit the garden to touch, feel and taste the vegetables.
“When kids are empowered as actors in this and they get to be a part of the process of planting a seed and watching it grow and preparing it to eat, their minds just open up because they take real ownership in the process,” Kass said.
Kass points to the statistics. “I’m incredibly worried and so is the First Lady right now. One in three of the youngest generation will have diabetes in their lifetime unless we turn this around.”
He acknowledges it can be a battle for parents to convince their children to give up the chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese and swap them for healthy vegetables. But there are steps parents can take, including sitting down for family dinners.
“The First Family, anytime the President is in town, they will eat dinner as a family. It’s a great way for families to sit down and be a family. It’s critical to getting kids to eat their vegetables too.”
Kass also recommends families try to plan ahead. Take half an hour on Sundays and map out meals for the week so you’re not trying to figure it out on the way home on the fly, he says. And he’s all about balance - having mostly healthy foods, but allowing for the occasional splurge.
Kass won’t disclose the President or First Lady’s favorite foods. “That’s top secret information,” he says brushing off the question with a laugh. But, he adds, the First Family practices what they preach. “We cook to MyPlate and then we go from there.”
With two children living in the White House, Kass says they do build in flexibility having dessert at the end of the week and the occasional pizza and pastas. “We balance healthy meals, but we have fun with food too. We make sure we throw them a bone every now and then and serve them fun stuff.”
The White House Let’s Move team is hosting a “State” dinner for kids in August. Children aged eight to 14 were invited to submit healthy recipes. Winning entrants from each state will be chosen to attend the dinner with Mrs. Obama.
Kass was one of the official judges, sampling more than 100 different dishes. “Kids were coming up with recipes with the help of their parents. They were wonderful. You could just see the ingenuity. Some really delicious stuff.”