How Sam Kass Made Over the Obamas’ Pantry Could Help Us All Eat a Little Better

sam kass
sam kass
Kass is one of the “most interesting food minds in the country” in the words of Ruth Reichl.

Editor’s note: We’re chronicling how tech is changing the way we eat and drink as we lead up to this fall’s Food Loves Tech. Our annual deep dive into appropriate food and ag technologies returns to Industry City on November 2–3, 2018 and you can get $20 off the regular admission price while our early bird special lasts.

If Michael Pollan’s adage “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants” were a pragmatic, less self-flagellating and all around feel-good cookbook, it would look a lot like Sam Kass’s recently published Eat a Little Better: Great Flavor, Good Health, Better World. In a tone not unlike that of his former bosses the Obamas, Kass writes like the cool, lighthearted dad he is, assisting readers to not eat “right” but to do what they can to eat well.

Down-to-earth ideas like this have consistently motivated Kass’s work since well before he became the Obama’s White House chef and senior policy adviser for nutrition. He’s now in the private sector, helping seed a business and technology future he believes will help improve our personal and planetary health—duties we can all but count on our federal government to fulfill these days.

Kass is one of the “most interesting food minds in the country” in the words of Ruth Reichl. We recently sat down with the West Village dad to learn more about his food philosophy, thoughts on how technology is changing how we eat and drink, and how he made over the Obama’s pantry.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Edible Manhattan: Most people still refer to you with your role that you previously had at the White House. You left in 2014—what have you been doing since?
Sam Kass: Yeah, I don’t think I’ll ever fully shake that for better and for worse. Now I’m a partner in an investment fund called Acre, which is investing in the future of food around human-health and environmental-health startup companies. I’m also a founder of Trove, which does strategy work around food issues. I just got this cookbook out yesterday—thank God. It takes a lot of brilliant people working hard to do a cookbook.

EM: Let’s talk about your investment and strategy work for a moment. From fisheries management and agriculture to how we use our own kitchens, what do you think about the technology’s vast and rapid entrance into our entire food supply chain?
SK: I’m really excited and optimistic about the future. I am totally empathetic and understand people’s concerns about GMOs and how they’re being used. Some of those concerns are not based in science; they’re much more emotionally based, which is not irrelevant because food is part of our culture and we should all be protective of it. I will say, though, that part of what holds us back is that we haven’t innovated around healthier aspects of our diet.

The relative cost of processed food has gone down over time. What we haven’t made the same progress on are vegetables and whole grains, and that really has much less to do with those commodities being subsidized as it has with those crops not having been invested in from a technology standpoint. So we have to, if we want to change how people are eating, make food more affordable and make it more convenient. And that’s going to happen by applying some tools and where technology is to help make that possible.

That doesn’t mean that all tools should just be accepted, that doesn’t mean that all tools will help against the challenges that we have, so we need to judge these tools and these technologies based on the value that they bring to consumers and eaters. That’s been left out of the equation until now. We’ve helped large-scale corporations become more efficient and make more money. That’s how most technology’s been applied so far. That’s starting to change because consumers and the planet are like “This isn’t good enough for me anymore.” [Tech’s] scary but it’s powerful and it holds huge promise. It remains to be seen how it’s used, but that’s how we should judge it.

EM: What uses of tech excite you?
SK: I think innovations in alternative sources of protein and microbiomes are super exciting. I think blockchain and various traceability technologies are going to be transformational. I’m cautiously optimistic about CRISPR: lots of complications, very concerned and nervous about lack of oversight. But also a set of tools that could help produce much more sustainable fruits and vegetables.

Kitchen technology is super exciting to me, too. If you look at the kitchen, the technological revolution that’s transformed our lives literally at every point has totally missed the kitchen in a way that’s actually quite strange. Basically nothing’s changed in the kitchen for the last 75 years with the exception of the microwave, and that’s crazy. There’s no question that technology is going to change the way that our kitchens operate, and it should; it needs to help people cook more.

sam kass
“We’ve helped large-scale corporations become more efficient and make more money. That’s how most technology’s been applied so far. That’s starting to change because consumers and the planet are like ‘This isn’t good enough for me anymore.'”

EM: Going back to your cookbook, why write one? Do you see it as an important addition to your other work?
SK: The majority of my energy is trying to help seed the next generation of food companies, but the cookbook is a real extension of the work that we did at the White House; in large ways I learned about what actually works and also saw the failings of a lot of the people who were trying to encourage healthier eating. We fail largely because we’re largely giving these utopian ideals of how we’re supposed to eat. The reality is most people don’t eat this way themselves and we try to meet this perfect ideal that doesn’t match how we live, almost everyone fails and gives up. I think that we need a much more pragmatic approach kind of grounded in the reality of people’s lives. The book’s really about giving people uncomplicated strategies that can make a real difference. The recipes are very simple and I look at them as tools to help make that kind of change.

Another big goal of the book is to help connect some of the choices people make to some of the issues we face as a society around climate change and sustainability. Our health and food is at the root of both of those in ways that people aren’t really that conscious of, so if we can make some of those connections for people and show a very simple path forward, how to impact both in their own lives and the world around them, I hope people feel very good about that.

EM: Totally, an example in your book being how you made over the Obama’s pantry to help them eat more healthfully. Let’s imagine the average American pantry right now. If you could do a couple of things to make it over, what would they be?
SK: One of the things that I did when I started cooking for the Obamas—but then learned that there’s actually a lot of science behind it—is implement the basic understanding that you eat what you see. We eat what’s around us. Most Americans are trying to eat better but a very small fraction of them are able to successfully do so, largely because there’s just a bunch of stuff surrounding them that’s not good for them and they think willpower’s going to work. Willpower’s a fallacy, it doesn’t work. If there’s a bag of chips on the table you’re going to eat the bag of chips, but if there’s a bowl of grapes there you’re going to eat that. It’s not that complicated.

So the first thing I’d do is just make sure that you have good, healthy, convenient options like dried fruit or nuts or a fruit bowl or chopped carrots or whatever and you have those in plain sight. You have them on the counter. You have them in clear glass jars. You have them eye-level in your fridge. And whatever treats that you love that you just can’t not have, like a chocolate chip cookie or whatever your version of that is, you just put that on a top shelf, out of sight. It means that you’re going to eat it when you want it.

We went through with the girls, and if the label had tons of ingredients that nobody could pronounce or if sugar was one of the top leading ingredients, we basically got rid of it. They kept a couple treats, which is great; I think the other part of health is not being obsessed with this, and that’s what surrounding yourself with good food allows you to do, not worry so much. Always being on edge about what we’re eating is also not healthy. You need to be able to allow yourself to relax. So I would do that—get rid of that sugary stuff, of the stuff with tons of ingredients in it or at least not buy it again. Try to get those healthy snacks in the house.

Then little by little over time you keep integrating these little steps and you’re going to get to a great place. Focusing on the little things can make a huge difference.

Ariel Lauren Wilson

Lauren is the former editor-in-chief of Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn.