Kass joined the White House kitchen staff in 2009 as Assistant Chef and, in 2010, became Food Initiative Coordinator. During his White House tenure, he took on several additional roles including Executive Director of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign and senior White House Policy Advisor for Nutrition. Kass is the first person in the history of the White House to have a position in the Executive Office of the President and the Residence. As one of the First Lady’s longest-serving advisors, he served as Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives and he helped the First Lady create the first major vegetable garden at the White House since Eleanor Roosevelt’s victory garden.
In 2011, Fast Company included Sam in their list of “100 Most Creative People,” and in 2012, he helped create the American Chef Corps, which is dedicated to promoting diplomacy through culinary initiatives. He is also an MIT Media lab fellow, entrepreneur and advisor.
Sam joined Manna Tree earlier this year as a speaker at our Global Health Forum in Vail, Colorado. We checked back in with Sam to learn about his insights after attending The White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health last month. Read on for the interview and how food as medicine has emerged as a strategy for the future.
“My vision for the future is the food system drives the biggest solutions to both our health and our climate challenges.”
What led you to a career in food?
Sam Kass: I traveled overseas in an abroad program in college. I ended up cooking, traveling my way around the world and realized food (and agriculture) were at the center of so many issues that our world faces. I started to focus in on the policy issues. I spent six years in the White House running food policy for President Obama and running Michelle’s campaign Let’s Move, while also cooking for them. I now spend my time investing in mission driven start ups focused on trying to solve climate change and human health with our food system.
The White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health comes more than 50 years after the 1969 Conference that helped launched some of today’s major federal food assistance programs, why now? How far have we progressed when it comes to health in America?
SK: When we were in the White House it was one of the administration’s top priorities day in and day out. I think it made a lot of sense now because it hasn’t been a priority in the White House for the last six years. Coming out of COVID, we saw a dramatic spike in food insecurity. We also saw both the fragility and resiliency of our food supply chain. Most recently with inflation, we have seen people’s buying power and their quality of life being eroded.
In the last 50 years, we haven’t progressed in a positive way on the health side. Today, there’s a staggering number of pre diabetics and diabetics in this country. In my opinion, climate change is the biggest threat to all of these issues. I can’t say we’re in a fundamentally better place than we were 50 years ago, but I can say we have greater awareness and tools. We have a lot of work to do.
What are some key takeaways from the updated national strategy?
SK: On a fundamental level, there were no new ideas in the updated strategy, but emerging opportunities for change. The concept that is really starting to (finally) emerge is food as medicine and food as a preventive approach to healthcare. I assumed this would happen 15 years ago when we passed Obama Care. There are a number of reasons why it didn’t catch on, the main one being because all of the payers didn’t think they’d get ROI on paying for people’s nutrition. They’ve been testing this and realize the savings are enormous. Food as medicine is a long term cost reduction strategy that the industry as a whole has a real incentive to adopt.
How do you see the future of nutrition as preventative healthcare?
SK: The formal way to look at it is in the healthcare system would be reimbursing and paying for food interventions. This could tackle a whole host of diet related diseases. For me, this is the most powerful opportunity. Right now there is no part of the economy that is incentivized for prevention. There is a lot of incentive for treatment, but not prevention. The emerging opportunity around food as medicine is only going to go as fast (or slow) as the consumer’s changing behavior. Which is happening! Brands are responding to this shift. You have new brands and companies popping up trying to make a change in the food system. Manna Tree is one of them with your mission to improve human health through nutrition.
What does the future of food look like to you?
SK: My vision for the future is the food system drives the biggest solutions to both our health and our climate challenges. The track that we’re currently on is going from the food system being the driver for the problems that we’re facing to having to reduce the problems in the food system and the negative impacts, both environmental and health related. This includes what we’re growing, how we’re growing it and what we’re eating. In the future, I believe the food system is the solution, not the problem. On the health side, humans go from dying prematurely to a longer, healthier life. On the environmental side, food and agriculture are humanity’s only chance to sequester enough carbon to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. Because the market is starting to value carbon, we can then pay farmers to do the right thing.