What Does Barack Obama's First 100 Days Mean for Serious Eaters?

20090428-obama100days.jpgSerious eaters will be hearing a lot in the next few days about President Obama's first 100 days in office, and most of the chatter will rightfully revolve around national security and the economy—and his achievements or lack thereof in those vitally important areas.

But, hey, we're Serious Eats, so I thought it would be useful to look at both the accomplishments of the Obama administration in terms of food-related issues and the signals they have sent concerning future food policy.

I asked Marion Nestle, one of the nation's leading authorities on food politics and a newly minted first-rate food-politics blogger, to assess the president's first 100 days from a food-policy perspective. Nestle is hopeful but anxious:

I wish I had a clear view of what the first 100 days mean for agriculture, food, nutrition, and health, but I think it’s way too early to tell. The most hopeful signs are strictly symbolic: the organic gardens at the White House and USDA. Obama has appointed some people interested in sustainable agriculture and in nutrition for the poor to high positions at USDA, and the nomination of Margaret Hamburg to be FDA commissioner is an excellent choice. I’m hoping she gets confirmed soon. What totally remains to be seen is what these people can actually do. I’m reserving judgment but keeping fingers crossed.

Nestle's anxiety is probably well-founded. We can't really grade the Obama administration for its food policy until we see what it can actually accomplish in the area of food policy. Nonetheless, there are encouraging signs.

  • First lady Michelle Obama has adopted healthy and local food for children as one of her signature issues. She planted an organic vegetable garden on the White House lawn, inviting neighborhood kids to help. This is one not-so-small step for foodkind
  • Michelle Obama also proved her food soul cred by sneaking out with her staff to Five Guys, which is in fact locally based in D.C.
  • I was also impressed that the Obamas' go-to restaurant in Chicago for special occasions is Spiaggia. I would like to encourage them to try Blackbird and Hot Doug's. Maybe they already have
  • The Obamas showed they are nobody's pawns when they decided to retain Cristeta Comerford as White House executive chef and Bill Yosses as White House pastry chef. By doing so they resisted the well-intentioned efforts of Ruth Reichl and Danny Meyer to affect their choice
  • Bringing hunky, food activist chef Sam Kass into the White House food mix, was a deft political move, signaling that the Obama administration will be active in food-policy debates
  • The administration nominated (and the U.S. Senate confirmed) former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack as Secretary of Agriculture, disappointing the food activists who put forward Michael Pollan's name as a possible contender. These days Vilsack champions family farms and local and sustainable agriculture—obviously a good thing, but as a former Iowa governor he is every mindful of agribusiness interests. How he will juggle those two seemingly contradictory notions in terms of policy-making and advocacy remains to be seen
  • The Obama administration clearly wants to address the obvious holes in our food safety net (more funding and more inspectors are desperately needed, as is a structural overhaul), but how quickly it moves will probably depend on the timing of food-safety crises
  • Obama has signaled that he is going to stand firm in his refusal to negotiate with beet-loving food activists. And here at Serious Eats we're down with that

I think serious eaters can feel good knowing that the Obamas care about good food eaten for pleasure and for our health. So let's raise a glass to his first 100 days. May his administration continue to fight the good fight for serious eaters everywhere.