Obama to Attend Chef's Wedding Amid Scrutiny of 'Let's Move' Program

Image: Obama to Attend Chef's Wedding Amid Scrutiny of 'Let's Move' Program First lady Michelle Obama with Assistant White House Chef Sam Kass. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Friday, 29 Aug 2014 01:02 PM

By Jennifer G. Hickey

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Sandwiched between  high-end fundraisers, President Barack Obama plans to travel to upstate New York to attend the wedding of MSNBC host Alex Wagner and Sam Kass, the Obamas' personal chef and a driving force behind the first lady's efforts to overhaul the nation's nutrition policy, Politico reports.

Obama's attendance at Kass' wedding comes amid increased scrutiny of the administration's efforts, particularly the Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign.

The relationship between the Obamas and Kass, who serves as senior policy adviser on nutrition, began in Chicago and continued in the White House, where he has joined the first lady on several of her major initiatives, including the White House vegetable garden.

A graduate of the University of Chicago with a degree in U.S. history, Kass joined the White House staff in 2009 as assistant chef to Executive Chef Cris Comerford and would be tapped to be the food initiative coordinator a year later, according to his biography on the White House website.

Kass' father, a teacher at one of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, once taught Malia Obama, the eldest Obama daughter.

But it is his service as executive director of Michelle Obama's controversial "Let's Move" campaign where he has had the most impact.

The controversial campaign was launched in February 2010 with the goal of engaging "every sector impacting the health of children" to reduce childhood obesity and improve school nutrition programs.

Four years later, the program has achieved its goal of expanding healthier choices in school cafeterias, but it also has posed additional challenges to school districts and has  resulted in a decrease in student lunch participation.

"Despite efforts to promote healthier choices to students, schools are struggling with decreased student lunch participation," Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association, told The New York Times.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says about 150 districts have dropped out of the program since the rules went into effect, Businessweek reports.

This week, the School Nutrition Association released findings from a survey of more than 1,100 school meal program operators across the nation, which found that schools are expanding their healthy choices, but are meeting a range of challenges related to the administration's food nutrition standards.

The survey found that 63 percent of districts have salad or produce bars, and just over half of schools (52 percent) serve locally sourced fruits and vegetables, which represents a 48 percent increase from 2011.

Among other key findings in the report, full-paid meal prices have increased since 2011 in all grade levels, with the average price for a full-paid lunch reaching $2.18 for elementary schools, $2.37 for middle schools, and $2.42 in high school.

The report found that the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act’s Paid Meal Equity mandate "is a primary driving force behind meal price increases, with 83 percent of those who increased full paid lunch prices in 2013-14 attributing the increase to Paid Meal Equity requirements."

The program requires whole grain alternatives and smaller meat and grain portions.

A January Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found school lunch participation has experienced a decline since 2007, but the greatest decline — 10 percent — came in 2012-13, while the number of students receiving free meals has been increasing. The GAO survey found 48 states said the new meal requirements set by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act directly affected student participation in the program.

"Despite school menu enhancements and creative marketing efforts, school meal programs nationwide are struggling with a decline in student lunch participation. US Department of Agriculture (USDA) data shows that under the new standards, lunch participation is down in 49 states, with more than 1 million fewer students choosing school lunch each day," the association reports.

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