When Sam Kass leaves Washington after six years as a high-energy and, at times, divisive White House chef, his successor probably won’t inherit three titles, two offices and an extraordinary bond with the first family.
But his replacement will still need to be ready for a political fight.
The Obama administration is set to lose its behind-the-scenes food policy general at the end of the month, right as a Republican Congress plans an assault on much of first lady Michelle Obama’s healthy eating agenda.
Kass isn’t just the most powerful White House chef in history, he has turned his gig into a political juggernaut, driving the administration’s aggressive food platform, from school lunch reform to mandatory nationwide calorie labeling and banning trans fat. But Republicans see much of that agenda as nanny-state overreach that needs to be reined in — and they are about to pull hard.
Already last month, Republicans scored a modest win by getting language into the year-end spending bill that loosens requirements for whole grains in meals for struggling schools and freezes current sodium limits, but it’s just the opening salvo in a long war to come when the GOP takes control of the Senate.
Republicans have their eyes on relaxing the standards when the law is up for reauthorization next year and undoing some of the calorie labeling rules set to hit restaurants, movie theaters, grocery stores and vending machines.
Kass has long led the administration’s policy offense and the political defense, but he recently announced he is moving to New York City to be with his wife, New York-based MSNBC host Alex Wagner, whom he married in August. Many now wonder who, if anyone, could fill the unique position he held.
“Over the years, Sam has grown from a close friend to a critical member of my team,” said President Barack Obama when the White House announced Kass’ departure.
Now when people think of the White House chef, the vision goes beyond someone who cooks grand State Dinners for kings and presidents to someone who tells us to eat our spinach and reminds us how much sugar is in our Lucky Charms. Kass’ work showed that virtually nothing is beyond politics anymore in Washington — even the guy who cooks the president’s dinner. While Kass cooked for the first family, executive chef Cristeta Comerford, who has held that post since 2005, handled formal White House entertaining.
“From constructing our Kitchen Garden to brewing our own Honey Brown Ale, Sam has left an indelible mark on the White House,” Obama said.
Walter Scheib, who served as executive chef at the White House for both the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, said he could not recall a chef even close to as involved in policy as Kass is, but he quickly noted there hasn’t been a first lady so interested in food policy, either.
The position “has become politicized,” he said. “But the position of the chef at the White House is a reflection of what’s already going on in the country. There’s a lot more awareness of food now than there’s ever been.” Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton cared deeply about healthy eating, he said, they just weren’t nearly as vocal and public about it.
“The American public thinks of Kass with his chefs’ whites on, but those of us in food policy think of him in a suit and tie working on food policy,” said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Wootan said she sometimes had policy calls with Kass while he was cooking dinner for the first family. “There’s never been an administration that has cared as much or put as much attention toward nutrition, ever. And there’s never been as senior a staffer or as influential a staffer as Sam has been in nutritional policy.”
Kass’ climb to de facto food policy czar was swift. He went from his initial post as assistant White House chef, when he followed the Obamas in 2009 from Chicago to Washington, to add the title of food initiative coordinator. He eventually was named executive director of the first lady’s Let’s Move! campaign and the first-ever senior policy adviser on nutrition, all while continuing to cook for the first family several nights a week. Regardless of the title he held, agencies and interest groups saw him as the administration’s point person on food policy.
“Sam really is irreplaceable,” said Sean McBride, founder of DSM Strategic Communications & Consulting, who previously worked with the administration on behalf of the food industry while at the Grocery Manufacturers Association. McBride said he thinks it will be next to impossible to replicate Sam’s role, largely because he had a close personal relationship with both the president and first lady and learned to navigate the politics of policymaking from “being in the trenches.”
“He could be a reasonable friend or a formidable foe,” recalled McBride. “I think he and the administration used both of those stances, depending on what the situation called for.”
Kass’ influence and ideas extended far beyond nutrition. He brokered commitments from the private sector to market more fruits and veggies to kids, with the help of Sesame Street characters. He weighed in on messaging around the approval of new GMO crops, on the FDA’s strategy to limit antibiotic drug use in meat production and the promotion of local food and regional food systems at the USDA.
With the first lady keenly interested in promoting healthier food, the White House has been very hands on in developing a number of sweeping policies and no detail is too small.
When FDA was working to update the iconic Nutrition Facts label, something that had been in the works for a decade, the Boston-based graphic designer on the project would get pulled out of meetings to field input on the layout and design from the White House. Mandating “added sugars” be listed on the label, something much of the food industry hates, is also thought to have come from the East Wing.
That high-level meddling has not always been welcome: Some mid-level FDA officials privately balked at the idea that “the chef,” as they called him, with no formal policy or nutrition background, was directing policy. Kass, 34, has an A.B. in history from the University of Chicago, where he played Division III baseball. He then trained under a few high-profile chefs in Austria and Chicago and began cooking for the Obama family in 2007, when Barack Obama was in the Senate.
Kass eventually developed a reputation in food and agriculture circles as someone who, for better or for worse, could get things done, often by deftly leveraging federal agencies.
For the past several months, Kass led the political fight against the GOP’s appropriations rider that would have let schools that were losing money opt out of nutrition standards required by the bipartisan Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which was championed by the first lady.
Last month, he called an all hands on deck meeting in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to map out the administration’s plan. Dozens of outside health advocates were in the room, along with officials from the USDA, White House legislative affairs, the Domestic Policy Council and the first lady’s staff. Kass, who led the meeting, reminded everyone that school nutrition was a top priority for the president and was worth digging in on.
The coalition succeeded at blocking much of the omnibus threat to the mandates, as House Republicans tried, during spending negotiations, to not only get one-year waivers for struggling schools but also roll back parts of the nutrition standards for all food sold in schools.
The rider instead allows states to give schools a break on whole grain rich requirements if they can show hardship and keeps sodium limits at current levels until more science supports the stricter limits that USDA proposed for 2017 and beyond.
“In light of the efforts to roll back school nutrition standards, we consider the minor adjustments to the standards a real win for kids and parents,” said Kass.
But Team FLOTUS knows it has a much bigger fight ahead of it as the school nutrition law is set to be reauthorized next year. The School Nutrition Association, which represents 55,000 cafeteria workers, cheered the rider language. The group is lobbying aggressively for the rules to be relaxed further.
Those who have watched Kass’ political maneuvering wonder if food issues will get the same level of attention after he leaves.
“He’s really the spiritual leader of the Obama administration’s food policy,” said McBride. “It’ll be interesting to see if they can keep the momentum going.”