Is a New Food Policy on Obama’s List?

By KIM SEVERSON
NY Times Published: December 23, 2008

FROM the moment it was clear that Barack Obama was going to be president, people who have dedicated their lives to changing how America eats thought they had found their St. Nicholas.

It wasn’t long before the letters to Santa began piling up.

Ruth Reichl, the editor of Gourmet magazine, wants a new high-profile White House chef who cooks delicious local food. Wayne Pacelle, head of the Humane Society of the United States, wants policies requiring better treatment for farm animals.

Parents want better public-school lunches. Consumer groups are dreaming of a new, stronger food safety system. Nutrition reformers want prisoners to be fed less soy. And a farmer in Maine is asking the president-elect to plow under an acre of White House lawn for an organic vegetable garden.

Although Mr. Obama has proposed changes in the nation’s farm and rural policies and emphasizes the connection between diet and health, there is nothing to indicate he has a special interest in a radical makeover of the way food is grown and sold.

Still, the dream endures. To advocates who have watched scattered calls for changes in food policy gather political and popular momentum, Mr. Obama looks like their kind of president.

Not only does he seem to possess a more-sophisticated palate than some of his recent predecessors, but he will also take office in an age when organic food is mainstream, cooking competitions are among the top-rated TV shows and books calling for an overhaul in the American food system are best sellers.

“People are so interested in a massive change in food and agriculture that they are dining out on hope now. That is like the main ingredient,” said Eddie Gehman Kohan, a blogger from Los Angeles who started Obamafoodorama.com to document just about any conceivable link between Mr. Obama and food, whether it is a debate on agriculture policy or an image of Mr. Obama rendered in tiny cupcakes.

“He is the first president who might actually have eaten organic food, or at least eats out at great restaurants,” Ms. Gehman Kohan said.

Still, no one is sure just how serious Mr. Obama really is about the politics of food. So like mystery buffs studying the book jacket of “The Da Vinci Code,” interested eaters dissect every aspect of his life as it relates to the plate.

They look for clues in the lunch menus at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, where his two daughters will be eating items like herbes de Provence pita, local pears and organic chopped salad, served with unbleached napkins in a cafeteria with a serious recycling program. They point out that when Mr. Obama was a child, his family used food stamps and that in interviews he has referred to his appreciation of the philosophy put forth by Michael Pollan, the reform-minded food writer.

They note with approval that Rahm Emanuel, Mr. Obama’s chief of staff, belongs to a synagogue that runs a community supported agriculture program and that his social secretary, Desirée Rogers, is from the food-obsessed city of New Orleans. They also see promising signs in Mr. Obama’s fondness for some of Chicago’s better restaurants, like Spiaggia and Topolobampo.

As for Michelle Obama, she has said in interviews that she tries to buy organic food and watches the amount of high-fructose corn syrup in her family’s diet. And, as she confided on “The View” on ABC, “We’re bacon people.”

Add it all up and Mr. Obama looks like the first foodie president since Thomas Jefferson. For more recent comparisons, one could look at President Bush, who is a fitness buff but who aligned himself with large agricultural companies like Cargill and Monsanto that some advocates for sustainable agriculture and organic food fight against.

President Bill Clinton certainly seemed to love food, but in his White House years his tastes ran more toward Big Macs than grass-fed beef. Only after his presidency, and serious health problems, did he turn his attention to issues of obesity and diet.

The Obamas are a different kind of first family, said David Kamp, who traced the history of the modern gourmet-food movement in his book, “The United States of Arugula” (Broadway, 2006). “This time we have a Democrat in office that seems to live the dream and speak the language of both food progressivism and personal fitness,” Mr. Kamp said.

For many food activists, a shiny new secretary of agriculture was high on the Christmas wish list.

One of the first names to come up was Mr. Pollan, who in October wrote an open letter to the future president in The New York Times Magazine, explaining the ways in which he believes the food system needs fixing.

Even after Mr. Pollan repeatedly pointed out that he was unqualified and uninterested in the job of overseeing a $97-billion budget and more than 100,000 employees, his supporters kept pushing with more fanaticism than Clay Aiken’s Claymates.

A couple of longtime Iowans, the celebrity pig farmer Paul Willis and his neighbor Dave Murphy, started a more serious drive. They compiled a list of six candidates who they thought would have the best interests of farm-based rural America and sustainable agriculture at heart. More than 50,000 people signed their petition, the restaurateur Alice Waters and the writer Wendell Berry among them.

But Santa had other plans. Last week, Mr. Obama appointed Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa, which grows much of the nation’s corn and soybeans. Mr. Vilsack has talked about reducing subsidies to some megafarms, supports better treatment of farm animals and wants healthier food in schools. But his selection drew criticism because he is a big fan of alternative fuels like corn-based ethanol and is a supporter of biotechnology, both anathema to people who want to shift government support from large-scale agricultural interests to smaller farms growing food that takes a more direct path to the table.

“Americans were promised ‘change,’ not just another shill for Monsanto and corporate agribusiness,” wrote Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association, which has promised to fight the confirmation of Mr. Vilsack. Mr. Willis and Mr. Murphy immediately shook off the blow and sent out a new petition to have someone more like-minded placed as undersecretary.

Food advocates aren’t the only ones whose hopes for the new administration received a quick kick to the curb. A coalition of more than 140 environmental groups and scientists sent letters supporting one candidate to lead the Department of the Interior. Mr. Obama chose someone else.

Multiply that by every special interest and it becomes clear that just because changing the food system is the first priority for some, it isn’t so for everyone. The pragmatists among the food reformers understand.

“This president is taking over when the economy is the worst it has been in our lifetime and we are in the middle of wars,” said Ann Cooper, the chef who transformed the school food program for the Berkeley Unified School District in California and is about to do the same in Boulder, Colo. “I think it’s somewhere between naïve and fairy tale to think his No. 1 focus is going to be on food.”

Still, she has her own little wish, which is that the new president will move responsibility for school food programs to the Department of Education or the Department of Health and Human Services from the Department of Agriculture. That way, the focus might shift away from the commodity foods that are the backbone of most school lunches and toward menus tailored to the health and development of children.

Some food-system reformers may have a better chance of getting what they want than others do. A coalition of community-based groups called the U.S. Working Group on the Food Crisis wrote to Mr. Obama asking him to make hunger and the global food crisis a top priority. Their optimism is based on Mr. Obama’s promise to abolish childhood hunger by 2015.

They are also banking on his desire to tackle climate change and overhaul energy and health care policies.

“If he’s serious about doing this, then he’ll have to address the current problems of our food system, which are inextricably linked to these other problems,” said Christina Schiavoni of World Hunger Year, which is part of the coalition. “There’s no getting around it.”

In her view and others’, diets filled with healthier food produced by less intrusive farming practices can reduce medical problems like obesity and diabetes and be easier on the environment.

And even if Mr. Obama can’t or won’t deliver the changes some are hoping for, maybe he’ll just leave a little something in their stockings.

A new White House chef, maybe? Cristeta Comerford, the first woman to hold the executive chef job, has been in the position since 2005, not long by White House standards. Still, some people think it’s time for a change. “What the president eats could have a major impact on everyone in the country,” said Ms. Reichl, who along with Ms. Waters and Danny Meyer, the restaurateur, sent a letter to Mr. Obama offering to help him select someone to head the White House kitchen.

A chef who cooks local and organic food and picks some of it from a presidential garden could change things faster than any cabinet appointment, Ms. Reichl said.

“It’s like the hat manufacturers being furious because J. F. K. didn’t wear a hat, and suddenly everyone in America stopped wearing hats,” she said. “It’s that simple.