The Unsung Heroes Who Will Feed Our Children


Chuck Kennedy/White House

There's been a ton of back-and-forth about "changing school food" lately, but I'm noticing a huge ramp-up since Michelle Obama and Sam Kass expanded their childhood obesity strategy to include chefs moving to schools (the "Chefs Move to Schools" program). A few weeks ago, under the leadership of the First Lady, Sam and his capable White House kitchen staff worked intensely to host more than 800 chefs at the White House to rally over what has become one of this decade's hottest subjects—school food. It was quite a sight: white coats spread across the South Lawn at the White House in such numbers that they couldn't fit into one photograph.

I was one of those chefs, and I have to say that, other than wondering who the heck was cooking for the rest of America that night, I was floored to see so many chefs in one place and at one time. And not just so many chefs, but so many chefs from so many different segments of American food service. It's pretty common to see such high-profile events attract big names from the exclusive group of America's "top chefs." Many of these culinary powerhouses were certainly there. But to literally see a handful of food celebrities dwarfed in number by hundreds of chefs of much humbler status was a pretty powerful thing to behold. This example of professional diversity was a striking and impressive thing for the White House to pull off.

Taxpayers would be pleased to know that all the travel and lodging costs for the event were on the dime of each individual chef—all the more powerful considering that the majority of chefs attending were not at a level of income enjoyed by many of their more famous contemporaries. For this group of chefs—college and grade school cafeteria chefs, food service kitchen managers, cooking instructors, and so on—making the pilgrimage to support a cause they believe in was not an easy or affordable task. I think this demonstrates a level of deep personal commitment from this under-celebrated group—commitment you don't often see in the organized and more publicly celebrated world of celebrity chefs.

Great personalities like Jose Andrés, Tom Colicchio, Cat Cora, and Rachael Ray are, of course, clearly committed to their causes too. But lesser-known cooks might actually be the ones who change the food world as we know it. These are the gals and guys who deal with the everyday reality of our current food system and don't benefit from the luxury of large sponsorships or an $80 average restaurant food check to help pay for publicity teams and walk-in coolers full of locally grown foods. When these folks make it happen, it's more a MacGyver duct tape-and-paper clip-type thing. These aren't the cooks who stand in a spotlight signing stuff for long lines of autograph seekers. They're the ones who just get it done, many times against what many upscale chefs would consider insurmountable obstacles. And when they go home—or, often, to their other job first, then home—they face the same challenges in being able to afford to feed their own families.

Should the movement gain the momentum that Chefs Move to Schools is intended to foster, these cooks will be the real heroes in the school food movement. My hope for them is that organizations and media outlets will begin considering the need to recognize these unsung heroes and heroines by way of awards, stories, media coverage, and the like.

I have been lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time and have received media attention and won a few awards. The recognition and awards have truly made a positive difference in my life, which is what awards are supposed to do. But what about those who accomplish great things with almost no resources? What about the cafeteria cook in Dubuque, Iowa, who's worked with toothpicks and knitting needles to help make a few hundred kids healthier? Wouldn't it be awesome for such a culinary heroine or hero to walk that red carpet and bring home a well deserved medal?

Hey. Maybe we could call it the MacGyver Foodie award ...