WashPost Devotes Front-Page Real Estate to Junk Food-less Obama White House

April 21st, 2014 12:40 PM

What better day than Easter Monday for the Washington Post to publish a 31-paragraph page A1 fluff piece celebrating the health nuts in chief at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?

Staff writer Juliet Eilperin was positively saccharine sweet about how the Obamas "have so transformed the culture inside" the White House "regarding nutrition and fitness" while painting conservatives as foot-stamping toddlers throwing a tantrum about their right to eat junk food (emphasis mine):



Gone are Tex-Mex Thursdays at the White House Mess and the least healthy vending machine options; calorie counts and hummus with vegetables are in. Working out with the Obamas’ personal trainer is one of the few acceptable excuses for being late to a meeting; the first family reserves desserts for weekend meals despite having a full-time pastry chef.

Earlier this year, there was an intense battle for bragging rights inside the complex as teams of six with names such as “Runnin’ Like Amtrak,” from Vice President Biden’s staff, and “Team Engage (Our Core),” from the Office of Public Engagement, earned a point for every 30 minutes of “moderate-to-vigorous physical activity” performed each day. Each team totaled its points each week.

“The culture here has shifted pretty dramatically, in direct ways and indirect ways, based on their leadership,” said Sam Kass, executive director of first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative and the White House senior policy adviser for nutrition policy. “I think we really live that. I think that’s been a transformation for the kitchen.”

There are large bowls of apples in the Oval Office and the first lady’s office, so aides can snack on them during meetings. The Obamas’ personal trainer, Cornell McClellan, offers his services to staff members as well.

President Obama and the first lady have made it clear they want staff members to take care of their health, especially after a couple of them had scares last year.


Needless to say, the cultural shift has political consequences. For conservatives, it affirms their conspiracy theories about the trans fat-eschewing, honeycomb-tending, Let’s Move-loving White House.

Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin (R) made s’mores during a 2010 episode of her reality TV show and quipped it was “in honor of Michelle Obama, who said the other day we should not have dessert.” Conservative personality Glenn Beck declared at a Right Nation conference that year: “Get away from my french fries, Mrs. Obama! First politician that comes up to me with a carrot stick, I’ve got a place for it. And it’s not in my tummy.”

Previous presidencies were better known for their food indulgences. George H.W. Bush set off a firestorm not just by declaring he was “not going to eat any more broccoli” as president of the United States but by boosting the sale of pork rinds by declaring his affection for them. Bill Clinton would stop by a McDonald’s during his regular jogs, and even the physically fit George W. Bush relished ballpark food such as hot dogs for his dinner.

Republicans often frame the issue as a right to eat calorie-laden food as a question of individual liberty, although several of the initiatives the first lady has championed are voluntary. Others are not. The Agriculture Department has moved ahead with a suite of rules changing the way Americans eat: overhauling nutrition labels to put an emphasis on calories and sugar, raising the nutritional standards for school lunches and banning the marketing and sale of unhealthy foods and beverages in school cafeterias, vending machines or at bake sale fundraisers that occur during school hours.

“We’ll see some grumbling from high-school students this fall, but for a 5- or 6-year old, this will just be all they’ll ever know,” Kass said of the move to jettison junk food from vending machines.


Frank Ruta, whose 11-year tenure as assistant chef at the White House spanned the Carter, Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, said the kitchen served the president’s family “three square meals a day” with dessert at lunch and dinner “to finish the meal on a sweet note. It didn’t have to be 500 calories.”

Ruta, who is now executive chef and owner of the D.C. restaurant Palena, fixed pimento cheese sandwiches for Amy Carter as well as fried chicken for her parents. Nancy Reagan liked to start her lunch with a consomme and have calf’s liver when her husband was out of town, because he wouldn’t eat it. (Ronald Reagan enjoyed hamburger soup when his spouse was on the road.) And Ruta noted that the Carters and Reagans were “budget-conscious” and used leftovers — every first family must reimburse taxpayers for the cost of their food.

The Obamas have emphasized local foods and exercise from the outset. Rick Bayless, who has cooked for them at his Chicago restaurant Topolobampo and at the 2010 state dinner for Mexican President Felipe Calderón, called them “joyful eaters, adventurous eaters — they eat for both pleasure and sustenance.”

In 2009, the first lady reestablished the White House kitchen garden, which has grown to encompass 1,900 square feet of prime South Lawn real estate and provides ingredients for the first family’s meals as well as state dinners. As of this year, it includes a pollinators’ garden, to emphasize the recent sharp decline in bees and butterflies’ populations.

National Gardening Association President Michael Metallo said his group found the rate of gardening among millennials has risen 63 percent in the past five years, and one in three U.S. households now has a food garden. “I don’t think you can look at that 63 percent and not think their message is getting through.”

The push is also credited with helping shift public attitudes about eating and contributing to the 43 percent decline in obesity rates among children ages 2 to 5 over the past decade.

There are limits to the Obamas’ influence. Only 10 percent of American gardeners plant kale, according to the NGA survey, even though the White House garden features three varieties of it this year.

“It’s still got a little ways to go,” Metallo said, diplomatically.

While it's laudatory for the Obama administration to show concern for the health and fitness of White House staff, there's a time and place for everything and a story like this seems better fit for the Wednesday Food section or, at best, a Style profile, not the front page of the A section, particularly the Monday after the administration yet again punted on a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline.

In a midterm election year, the Obama administration can use all the positive, puffy front-page press it can get, and the Post and Ms. Eilperin certainly obliged today.