Sam Kass's Let's Move Update: Activism in the Age of Walmart

Published on February 25 2011 - 1:09 PM
Sam Kass's Let's Move Update: Activism in the Age of Walmart
Sam Kass, White House chef and Senior Policy Adviser for Healthy Food Initiatives, gave the keynote address to members of The International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) at its New York City Regional Conference on Friday. 


The IACP is much more than an organization of cooks. Every member I talked to is engaged in some incredible farming, gardening, school, or other kids' project, each more exciting than the next. 

Kass spoke to an audience of people who care deeply about food, cooking, health, and kids, and eager to hear what he had to say. Me too.

The core of his speech was a review of the accomplishments of the First Lady's Let's Move campaign, which has just completed its first year. These, in sum, are considerable:

Over this past year, we've seen the first signs of a fundamental shift in how we live and eat. 

We've seen changes at every level of our society--from classrooms to boardrooms to the halls of Congress. 

We have begun to see this change because people from all over the country, parents and teachers, doctors and small business owners, have started demanding change. 

...Parents asked for more fresh, nutritious food in communities. So we're working to bring more grocery stores into underserved areas. 

Parents wanted healthier, more affordable options on those grocery store shelves. So we collaborated with food companies and retailers to provide healthier products....

Parents asked for more information about the food you buy for your kids. And today, we're seeing better, clearer labels on beverage cans....

Parents asked for better food in your kids' schools--the kind of balanced meals they are trying to make at home. So we're working to put salad bars in 6,000 schools across the country. Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, historic legislation that will provide healthier school meals to millions of American children. 

Parents asked for healthier communities that can sustain healthy families. And through Let's Move Cities and Towns, 500 mayors have committed to tackling obesity in their communities....

Parents asked for practical, affordable, real-life advice to keep kids healthy. So we launched a public service campaign and a website--letsmove.gov--with helpful tips on exercise and nutrition....

If we can do all this in the first year, just imagine what we'll achieve next year and the year after that....

These kinds of changes will not come easily ... There will certainly be many roadblocks and setbacks. But we need to keep working to break through and work in a collaborative way.

Here's the speech in its entirety. It may sound speech-written and not overwhelming, but consider the context: This is the first time food, nutrition, and health have gotten anywhere near this kind of attention at that level of government (at least, food writer Laura Shapiro tells me, since the time of Eleanor Roosevelt).

For the First Lady to take on these issues is truly extraordinary. Mrs. Obama has no legislated power whatsoever. She only has the power of leadership and persuasion.

That the kind of changes she is trying to make will not come easily is a breathtaking understatement. The roadblocks are formidable. Mr. Kass made it abundantly clear that the White House is trying to do what it can, and then some.

His speech was moving and inspiring. It's up to us to cheer them on in every way we can, and also to keep the pressure on to do even more.

Update:

Not everyone liked Sam Kass's speech as much as I did, and I've been asked to expand on the idea that we need to pressure the White House to do more. Here's how I see the situation.

We live in an era when corporations run government.  You don't believe this? Take a look at the appalling events in Wisconsin. Consider the implications of last year's Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, allowing corporations virtually unlimited funding of congressional election campaigns.

Election campaign funding is the root source of corruption in American government. If corporations were not allowed to fund election campaigns, we might be able to elect legislators who are more interested in public health than corporate health.

The First Lady's Let's Move campaign aims to reduce childhood obesity. This, in itself, is fundamentally anti-corporate. Why? Because fixing obesity means eating less and eating better, and both are very, very bad for business. And they are especially bad for the corporations that make highly profitable junk foods--snacks, sodas, and the like--and for retailers who display these products on supermarket shelves.

From the perspective of the White House, the food business is not going away. If the Obama administration is not going to be perceived as anti-business, it has to work with corporations.  But what can food corporations really do to help kids eat more healthfully?

I worried about this question when I returned from the World Economic Forum in Davos a few years ago. There, I met high-level executives of food corporations and realized that I needed a clear, unambiguous agenda for them. But because I think people would be healthier if they ate mostly unprocessed foods, and I'm not much impressed by small nutritional tweakings of junk foods, I had a hard time thinking of positive things they could do.

The only agenda items I could think of were negatives: stop marketing junk food, stop marketing to kids, stop marketing junk food as health food, stop attacking critics, etc.  Negatives won't sell.

I think Mrs. Obama's choice of childhood obesity as her First Lady's Cause was a courageous decision. In the current corporate context, the accomplishments listed by Mr. Kass add up to something meaningful. 

The First Lady is doing what she can. And let's face it: nobody else in that position ever has.  Never have issues of food and nutrition been made so legitimate. For that alone, she deserves thanks.

If the Obamas think they have to work with business, they have to work with Walmart--it's the 800-pound food gorilla. In theory, if Walmart tweaks food products, reduces the price of healthier food options, sources lower cost fruits and vegetables, and moves stores into inner cities, the net result will be healthier choices for Walmart customers. In practice, we have to wait and see. [Editor's note: More Atlantic Food Channel coverage of Walmart's healthy foods initiative is available here, here, and here.]

The White House must think these potential gains are worth the cost of the nose-holding they have to do about Walmart's labor and business practices.  Nose-holding is the price of getting things done at that level. I am in the privileged position of not having to make those kinds of compromises (thank you, NYU).

It is not an accident that Mr. Kass's riff began with "parents told us." The First Lady cannot budge without substantial popular support and pressure. If we think she is in a position to do any good at all for the movement to reverse childhood obesity and improve the food system, we have to let her know what we'd like her to try to do--loudly and repeatedly.

So maybe the First Lady's--and Sam Kass's--next speech will begin: "Everyone who cares about how our food is produced and consumed told us...."

Maybe I'm overly optimistic (it's my nature), but I still see Mrs. Obama's efforts as an opportunity. We ought to be using it to push for what we think is right.

This post also appears on foodpolitics.com.

This article originally appeared on The Atlantic's Food Channel.

Marion Nestle is professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, and the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics.

Marion Nestle is professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, and the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics.