Before Michelle and Barack Obama were in The White House, they were a family similar to many other families in America. Michelle Obama was traveling frequently, had a full-time job, and was helping her husband campaign as he was making his first moves toward the presidency. That left little time for healthy meal-planning.
It was Sam Kass, former Executive Director for Michelle Obama's Let's Move initiative, who turned the family's eating habits around. At the Partnership for a Healthier America Summit, held Friday, Obama said that she found out years ago that Kass was a chef who helped families figure out how they could eat healthier.
"I ran into him and said, 'Can you help us?'" she said. He, of course, said yes and taught the Obamas how little they really knew about what goes into processed foods. Part of his method was to clean out their fridge and pantry of all food that wasn't, as Kass called it, "real" food.
"Of course the kids were sadly looking at the refrigerator as fun thing after fun thing was chucked into the garbage," Obama said. "One of the things Malia said was, 'Can I keep the boxed macaroni and cheese?' She was like, 'Please, please Sam don't throw that out.'"
Kass told her that if she could show him how to turn a block of cheese into the powdered substance that comes in boxed mac and cheese then they could keep it.
Clearly, the mac and cheese went into the trash.
Ever since, Obama has been trying to help other families focus more on fresh food. She launched Let's Move while in The White House. The initiative aimed to "empower parents and caregivers with the information and tools they need to make good choices for themselves and their families." She became a public face for healthy eating policies and took charge in the media, appearing on shows like Master Chef Junior to teach kids about balanced eating and even challenging Refinery29 to find five staple ingredients young people could keep on hand for healthy meals.
Everyone cares about kids, she said. It's not about politics, or religion, or race — most of us probably care about children's well-being. And while parents may not be too concerned about what is in the packaged foods they're feeding themselves, they'd likely be concerned if the food their kids were eating wouldn't help them grow up healthy, Obama said.
She's not saying that everyone needs to stop eating all processed foods, of course. Eating packaged cookies or chips or even boxed mac and cheese every now and then isn't terrible and it's not going to cause diabetes or heart disease. But Obama would like to see more families focus on fresh produce, real cheese, meats, whole grains, fruits and other fresh foods more often.
Part of what holds parents back, Obama said, is the fact that food companies aren't always transparent about what exactly goes into pre-packaged foods.
"The information isn't there," she said. "You can't read labels, you don't understand what you're getting ... you just don't know."
"You should know what you're eating," she said. "This is where you've got to look yourselves in the eye, we've got to look our neighbors in the eye and kind of go, 'What is going on?' Because this isn't that complicated. Tell me what's in my food."
She says that food companies that try to hide how much added sugar is actually in a product aren't giving moms enough credit — that they couldn't handle knowing what went into their food — and that they're trying to "keep families ignorant."
"Consumers out there, I would be highly insulted by that thought," she said. "'You just buy the food and be quiet,' that’s essentially what a move like this is saying to you, mom."
Some companies have made an effort to be more transparent or to cut back on things like added sugars and artificial dyes, Kass said, likely in response to a growing number of consumers looking for healthier products.
These are small changes, sure, but they show that some companies are listening to moms like Obama who want more options for their kids. And while it might be a good idea to eat fresh food a majority of the time if you have the time and money to do so, that doesn't mean you can't indulge in an occasional (even processed) treat.
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