From the White House to the World: Food, Health, and Climate Change, with Chef Sam Kass
September 7, 2017
ROXANA SABERI: Welcome to Ethics Matter. I'm Roxana Saberi.
Today we're going to talk about the intersection of food, ethics, and the environment. Our guest is Sam Kass. He is a chef and entrepreneur. He was the personal chef to the first family under the Obama administration. He was also the executive director of Michelle Obama's "Let's Move!" campaign, aimed at improving the health of children, and he also served as the senior White House policy advisor for nutrition.
He left the White House in 2015 and is now the founder of TROVE, which helps companies create the future of food around health and sustainability. He is a venture partner in Acre Venture Partners, which invests in the next generation of companies working to solve these problems.
SAM KASS: It's so good to be here.
ROXANA SABERI: It's great to have you at the Carnegie Council studios in New York. There is so much to talk to you about, not just because food is something we need and we like, but also because it's linked to so many other issues such as the climate, politics, economics, and stability around the world.
But first I want to ask you: Why are you interested in food? How did you get interested in food? I know you grew up in Chicago. I was reading a New York Times article about you a few years ago, and one of your classmates said: "I definitely would not have thought of Sam to be a food guy. When we were in school together, he was very focused on sports."
SAM KASS: I was.
ROXANA SABERI: So what changed?
SAM KASS: My dream growing up was to be a baseball player. I made a run at trying to get to the league, but it didn't quite work out.
What changed? I grew up. I wanted to see the world. My original motivation around food was really travel. When I was at the University of Chicago getting a history degree, I got into an abroad program in Vienna, Austria. I had worked one summer in a restaurant, but literally knew nothing about food, and sort of wiggled my way into this Michelin-star restaurant when I was in Vienna, and they ended up taking me in like family and gave me old-school training. I ended up staying illegally and working there for over a year and getting trained—not getting paid, but getting paid in knowledge.
ROXANA SABERI: And food.
SAM KASS: And food. They fed me. They gave me a place to stay, they fed me, and they worked me to near death.
ROXANA SABERI: Wow.
SAM KASS: But it was just an incredible way to go see the world. Food is a universal language that, if you follow it, will take you to all kinds of interesting places, people's kitchen tables, little restaurants in the Amazon, all kinds of fun and amazing things. That was really what drove me.
I love food as well, but never had any intention of being a chef. That was never part of the plan. I guess at that point I didn't really have much of a plan.
ROXANA SABERI: You ended up back in Chicago, and I understand you met the Obamas when you were in Chicago, and actually Michelle Obama has said she met you when you were a kid. I'm not sure how she defines "a kid."
SAM KASS: I've known them since I was in high school, basically.
ROXANA SABERI: I know that you started cooking for Michelle Obama and Sasha and Malia when then-Senator Obama was on the campaign trail for the presidency. How did all of this lead to you serving as the personal chef to the first family?
SAM KASS: By that point, when I got back I'd already been very engaged in food and politics and health issues, but I made a kind of shift in my mind around what I wanted to do with food by that point. I came back really trying to get involved in food and politics, ironically, but having no notion of connecting with the Obamas and working with them; it hadn't crossed my mind.
Right when I got back I got reconnected with Michelle, and then-Senator Obama had just announced the campaign a couple of months prior and was on the campaign trail, so I started helping them out, cooking a couple of times a week, because there was no staff. He was a professor, she was a professional, but they didn't have like a big staff; it was grandma, basically. I started helping out a couple of times a week, making sure the kids had some basic nourishment, and it sort of grew from there.
We started talking about all the issues that we were facing as a country, and challenges that families, and particularly kids, were facing, and the implications for our health and their health and the health care system and our education system and all these other issues. We started talking about what we could do if we happened to make it into the White House. That was early days, and nobody knew who Barack Obama was.
ROXANA SABERI: But you were dreaming big.
SAM KASS: We were dreaming big, but we would also laugh at ourselves. We'd be like, "Come on, this is crazy. Like, no, no chance." But we dreamed, and lo and behold—
ROXANA SABERI: It became a reality.
SAM KASS: —he pulled it off. Then it was like, "Okay, well, here we go." The president invited me to come with them to DC and do the food, and the first lady wanted to work on these issues, so we packed our bags.
ROXANA SABERI: I want to ask you about some of those issues, but first I have to ask you about what the Obama family ate. We heard that President Obama liked to eat with his family every night whenever he was in town. What was their typical meal?
SAM KASS: He did eat every night with the family, and I think that's something that is really important to emphasize. This is the busiest man in the world with the most pressure, and he organized his day around making sure he was home for dinner. The only time he wouldn't be there was if he was either overseas or on a West Coast trip. But even if he was traveling anywhere else, he would be home for dinner.
It was really something that taught me the importance of that, because the other thing that was really beautiful about it was when both of them walked in, the rest of the world was left at the door, and it was just family time. I don't know how I could have done that.
ROXANA SABERI: They were able to be very present.
SAM KASS: Totally present. It was wonderful to watch and really gave me a lesson about the importance of that, because that's where, you know, you can go five days and the kids don't tell you anything, and then there's that sixth day, and all of a sudden something really important just kind of comes out, and being present there has taught me—I just had my first child.
ROXANA SABERI: So you'll be eating meals together?
SAM KASS: Oh, absolutely. Food is my whole life, so . . .
In terms of the food, they're simple, everyday people who had a huge job but didn't want fancy food. When you're in the White House you see all the pomp and circumstance and all the craziness of the place, but it's their home, so part of the job of the chefs and the whole resident staff is to make it feel like home as much as possible, even though hundreds of people are around all the time.
Simple, one plate. There are no courses, one plate. Lots of healthy, basic, tasty food. The first lady was very clear that if we're talking about these issues and asking people to eat a certain way, we're definitely going to eat that way. It was very genuine to how they lived.
ROXANA SABERI: Usually some vegetables—
SAM KASS: Lots of vegetables.
ROXANA SABERI: —some protein.
SAM KASS: Yes. Chicken, fish, lots of brown rice, lots of vegetables. Nothing fancy.
ROXANA SABERI: I know you have been asked what the president's favorite meal was, and at the time you said it was top-secret information, but since he is no longer in the office, is it still top secret?
SAM KASS: That was my go-to answer to avoid answering that question.
ROXANA SABERI: It's not valid anymore.
SAM KASS: I guess it's not, is it?
ROXANA SABERI: Well, it could be.
SAM KASS: Don't they seal the records for 30 years?
What's his favorite food? His favorite fun food is a cheeseburger, and he's very particular, like the burger has got to be right.
ROXANA SABERI: Well done?
SAM KASS: Medium well on the burger. She has stated repeatedly that her favorite indulgence is french fries.
ROXANA SABERI: I can relate to that, for sure.
SAM KASS: Yes. Many people can.
ROXANA SABERI: While you were at the White House you also were the executive director of the "Let's Move!" campaign, led by Michelle Obama. I know that there are various techniques used in helping to improve the nutrition and health of kids, and one of those was a music video by Beyoncé, where she went to a cafeteria and was dancing with these students, and this video has gone viral and now has like tens of millions of hits. Were you involved in that video?
SAM KASS: Oh, yes. That was a fun moment. Beyoncé has been an amazing champion for the first lady and for these issues.
Often we try to speak to people in scientific language about nutrients and vitamins and long-term health outcomes and things like that, but that's not what changes what people decide to do in their lives, particularly for young people. We wanted to speak to people in a language that they understood and a language that they spoke. Really in the end, in trying to change how we eat, you're talking about trying to change our culture and what we value. That's hard, but that means you need to get the support of big influencers like Beyoncé. That's why companies pay these people tens and hundreds of millions of dollars to get them to support their products because that is really what galvanizes people to make different decisions.
That was a great example, but there are dozens and dozens of examples of us really trying to do fun, interesting, culturally relevant things to make healthier eating cool and hip.
ROXANA SABERI: So kids can relate to your message.
SAM KASS: Yes, totally. What you realize is, certainly for all these athletes, but all these performers who go through grueling schedules, they all eat really healthy. None of them are out there on junk food at this point. That performance message is really quite powerful. If you see Beyoncé eating some broccoli, all of a sudden you're like: "Whoa. I want to be like Beyoncé. Beyoncé's eating broccoli."
It's very simple. It's why all these athletes and folks are in these prominent positions and have the influence that they do, so we have to tap into that. If you want young people to change and you want to make this culturally relevant, having some doctors in the corner—although they have a very important role, but a different role—if you want to talk to a 14-year-old, having somebody in a white coat talking about how nutrients are processed in your body, a 14-year-old is like, no, does not compute, does not care. But if LeBron James is out there doing it, all of a sudden kids are like, "Give me that broccoli."
ROXANA SABERI: I think my parents would have liked it if I had a role model like that when I was a teenager because I didn't like broccoli or carrots or anything like that, but now I do because I grew into it.
Michelle Obama spoke about some of the successes of the "Let's Move!" campaign. She created an animated video, and she was speaking in it. It showed how kids today are more likely to get fruit and vegetables, for example, in their school lunches. What would you say were the biggest successes of the "Let's Move!" campaign?
SAM KASS: I think we had a transformative impact on these issues, and one that we won't know the entirety of for another 10-15 years when these younger kids really start growing up.
I think on a policy level probably the biggest impact we had was in schools. We improved the standards around the school lunch program in a way that they've really never been done before. We put standards on junk food that was sold in schools. When we got there, you could sell anything you wanted in a vending machine or in the lunch line. You could literally sell anything you wanted, which is crazy. We put really good standards on there, and we got more money to the program.
ROXANA SABERI: Now kids can't find chocolate bars?
SAM KASS: There are no candy bars in schools.
ROXANA SABERI: In public schools, we're just talking, right?
SAM KASS: Yes, in schools that we had jurisdiction over. But that is 31 million kids.
We dramatically expanded the school breakfast program. One thing we found was that hunger is a huge problem. It is way bigger than anybody realized. One in five kids is food-insecure in this country, which is abhorrent, considering the wealth of our nation. If a kid is sitting in class, it's 11 o'clock, and they haven't eaten anything, their ability to learn is dramatically undermined. We found, though, that a lot of kids who are eligible for school breakfast wouldn't get it because breakfast was "only for the poor kids," whereas lunch, all the kids would eat in the lunchroom so you couldn't really tell who was poor and who was not, who was getting free lunch, or who brought their own lunch.
ROXANA SABERI: You wouldn't feel shamed.
SAM KASS: You just were together. But at breakfast it was only the poor kids. So a lot of kids were not showing up for breakfast because they didn't want to be singled out as being poor. We expanded breakfast in the classroom dramatically and for everybody, and we saw participation rates skyrocket. There are now volumes of evidence showing that it has a significant improvement in educational outcomes because the kids now can concentrate.
In that regard, I feel very proud of what we accomplished. Lots of other policies around better labeling, better information; we banned trans fats, which is a known killer.
ROXANA SABERI: In schools.
SAM KASS: No. We banned trans fats across the country, which is a huge win for families. It's a known killer. Lots of other policies that I could bore you to death with that I'm very excited about. That's one part.
I think the other thing the first lady did in a way that nobody else could do was she took this issue that was kind of on the fringe and put it squarely in the mainstream, and I think did it in a way that people could really relate to and be excited about and feel positive about, so I think she transformed our culture.
For these younger kids, it's not cool to be unhealthy; it's not cool to just sit there and not get exercise and just pig out on junk food. All kids are going to do that. I did that as a kid. But the culture is changing, and expectations, particularly of the younger generations, are they want better, healthier food.
ROXANA SABERI: Do you think we will see obesity rates continue to drop in the future?
SAM KASS: I'm certainly hopeful. It depends on what we do from here on out. It's not that we did some work and then we can wipe our hands and say we're done, but I think we definitely gave ourselves a chance.
For the youngest and hardest-to-reach populations, very young—zero to two, zero to four, depending on the research—low-income kids, we've seen significant declines in obesity rates, and those are the hardest-to-reach kids. Part of it is because we changed the program called WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children), which serves low-income mothers and children.
ROXANA SABERI: I want to talk to you about the future, actually, because right now we have a new president, kids are in school under a different president, President Trump, and his administration has announced some delays in rules that were put in place under the Obama administration, such as rules meant to reduce sodium and meet higher whole-grain requirements in school lunches. How concerned are you that your efforts will be rolled back?
SAM KASS: First, I would say I think it's insane to undermine the nutritional quality of food that taxpayer dollars are funding for kids around the country, particularly given that one in three kids are on track to have diabetes in their lifetime and one in three kids are overweight or obese. It's just crazy and pretty shameful.
I will say that the two things they've done in the school realm aren't great. They should be strengthening, they should be saying: "We didn't do enough." They should be saying: "Here's more money. Here are better standards." That's what they should be doing. They're obviously not going to do that.
But the things that they have done, I don't feel, strike at the heart of the work that we did. I feel pretty good—at least at this point—about how the integrity of the work has held up.
We're not even a year in. I don't know, it feels like forever. We'll see what happens. There's a long way to go. Definitely Republicans on the Hill are eager to block-grant the school nutrition program, meaning cut it up and just give states dollar amounts to implement and leave it up to them to decide what to do.
ROXANA SABERI: Why shouldn't they?
SAM KASS: That would be a disaster. Really it's a red herring. That would be the way that they dramatically cut funding for the program and limit—depending on how many kids need whatever services in school lunches, they still get the same amount of money. It's a way to cut dramatically the amount of money that is flowing to school lunch.
ROXANA SABERI: But states and schools might say, "We want to have more control of what we're serving our kids. We don't want the government to tell us."
SAM KASS: Yes, that's great, and I understand that would be their point. If they want the right to serve their kids candy bars, I don't think they should have that right. I think if taxpayer dollars are funding this program, there should be a basic standard based on science about what is good for these kids' health, well-being, and long-term vitality, because in the end we're going to pay for it one way or another.
The projections of one in three kids having diabetes in this country—our healthcare system will simply collapse. I don't care—Obamacare, Trumpcare, somebody else's care—there is no program that will be able to deal with a society when one out of three is diabetic. We just can't afford these sort of political games with the future of our children and the future of our country. I wholeheartedly reject that notion. If some states want to do better, go right ahead, but there has to be a floor about what we expect our kids to be eating, and it shouldn't be whatever they want.
ROXANA SABERI: The federal government, you're saying—and we've seen through your experiences—should have a role in showing and regulating what and how kids eat in school?
SAM KASS: Absolutely. There is no way around that. If we believe that kids have a right to have a lunch, and we believe particularly for low-income kids who can't afford a lunch that they should eat something, and that ultimately whether—I would much prefer everybody have better jobs, higher-paying jobs, and maybe they could take it all in their own hands, but a lot of kids are very poor and don't have any food. If we're going to solve that problem, which is absolutely critical to the success of our education system, then there have to be some basic standards that determine what we serve.
If my money is going to this as a taxpayer, I want to make sure that I'm not funding a diabetic child that I will then have to pay even more money in 20 years, and that my kids are going to have to pay for. I don't think there is much of a question on this.
You can argue around the edges around where you should set the sodium standards, but when we know that hypertension is killing 40,000 people a year, you think we shouldn't have some basic restrictions on how much sodium we can be piling on at school for a little kid? For me, this debate was settled a long time ago.
ROXANA SABERI: One more point about this debate. You probably heard the agriculture secretary in the Trump administration, Sonny Perdue, say that some of these rules that were put in place made food unsavory for kids—they didn't like the taste of the food in schools anymore—and that some school districts were reporting lower participation in school lunches. Do they have a point?
SAM KASS: The question is, is their point that school lunch oftentimes doesn't taste good? Anybody who wants to make the argument that that's new should just ask anybody who has ever eaten a school lunch. School lunch not tasting great is as old as the program. That's a joke to me.
Honestly, what I've found after traveling all over the country, is that it depends on the school chefs and how committed and excited they were about cooking better food. For those who rolled up their sleeves and got creative, they've actually seen participation rates go up. Overall—the last numbers I've seen—they have actually gone up. There are some districts where they've gone down, but overall they've gone up because the food is better, and kids actually want to eat it.
In the end, kids are people. If it tastes bad, they're not going to want to eat it. If you put a little love into it and you make it taste good, they're going to eat it. It's not that complicated.
That is just nonsense, that somehow saying you have to have a fruit or vegetable on the plate led to declines in participation. That's a joke.
ROXANA SABERI: Do you have any other thoughts or concerns about the Trump administration's health and nutrition policy?
SAM KASS: Yes, lots.
ROXANA SABERI: Are there any that you could summarize for us?
SAM KASS: I have nothing but concern. There is nothing, there has been not one policy put into place that I think will lead to a healthier, more prosperous, vibrant future for our children yet.
ROXANA SABERI: Not one?
SAM KASS: Not one. I hope they come, but the efforts to dismantle our health care system as it pertains to supporting, getting health care access for all Americans, what we've seen throughout their ag [agricultural] policy so far, environmental policy, there is nothing that makes me feel like there's a—I guess the only thing that I'll give credit to—and I'm trying to be as straight as I possibly can—is at least they didn't tear out the garden so far.
ROXANA SABERI: Right.
SAM KASS: I'll give them credit for that.
ROXANA SABERI: Melania Trump said that she would keep the garden going—and we're talking about the White House vegetable garden.
SAM KASS: Yes, the White House vegetable garden the first lady planted. I think that's a great thing. I'm obviously very supportive of that and happy. It's definitely the right thing to do. It would be really against the tradition of the White House to tear out anything of a president who just left. That would violate the entirety of the history of the House. I'll give total credit there.
But on a policy level, there is some of the rollback stuff, but there is no progress. I've seen nothing else, like, "Here's something else good we can do."
Look, it's early days. They're still trying to staff up, so we'll see what comes. But I can't say that I'm optimistic.
But I'll also say this. Everybody likes to say that everything is going to be rolled back. Rolling back things, as they are already finding in the early months of the presidency, is hard, particularly in school lunch. The companies themselves who provide most of the food, they don't want a rollback because they've already adjusted. They've spent the money to innovate, they have their new offerings. The train has left the station. Do you want to really spend political capital to force more salt and sugar back into school lunches? It just doesn't make any sense, and you don't have industry behind that, at least most of it. I feel okay about where it goes. Getting things done is hard, rolling them back is also hard. That's how the founders structured our government, for stability.
ROXANA SABERI: As you mentioned, the culture is changing.
SAM KASS: Totally. When you ask moms and dads, "Do you want good nutrition for your kid in school?" it polls at like 91 percent or something. Go for that. Let's have that fight. I'm eager for that one.
ROXANA SABERI: Let's look beyond our borders here in the United States with a global perspective. Let's take a look at food, because it's linked to so many issues that affect the world.
Climate change: How does what we eat and how we eat it affect the climate? How does climate change affect the way we eat?
SAM KASS: Food is really one of these fundamental issues when it comes to climate, and it gets almost no attention. I think it is something that has to change if we really actually want to solve this challenge, both solve it and deal with it. Food and agriculture is the number two emitter of greenhouse gas emissions, about 25 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The estimates vary; that's a conservative estimate.
ROXANA SABERI: That's after energy consumption and transport?
SAM KASS: After energy. Energy is number one, and food and ag is number two. That is a conservative way to cut the numbers.
ROXANA SABERI: That's from what? From landfills, from cows, cattle, livestock?
SAM KASS: It's from a number of different things. We lose a lot of carbon from the soil, which goes up into the air. It has been driven a lot by animal agriculture—particularly beef—and fertilizers. There are lots of steps along the way. The feed for cattle takes a lot of energy and releases a lot of carbon into the air.
Then there is methane from both the animals and food waste. Food waste is another key component of this. If you look at waste as an emitter, it would be the third largest emitter after China and the United States.
ROXANA SABERI: Food waste.
SAM KASS: Food waste, if it was a nation, and methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas.
I just see a very inefficient system. We have a system that is the number two contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, which in turn makes growing food that much more difficult in the future. We're wasting about a third of what we produce globally, which also then contributes to this problem. And we're getting health outcomes where, say, in the United States one in three are on track for diabetes. Globally you have about 2 billion overweight or obese people and about 800 million who are malnourished or undernourished. You're getting health outcomes that are just simply unacceptable. There is no other major system for humans that is so inefficient in that regard.
If we don't solve food when it comes to climate, we're never going to reach our targets. If you look at the curve for energy, because of technological breakthroughs and a lot of the investment that has been happening in energy over the long term, we see a future where actually we can dramatically reduce our carbon footprint when it comes to how we produce energy. Food? We have no path on that.
ROXANA SABERI: Why?
SAM KASS: There are a lot of factors. One, food is a politically sensitive issue in every single country around the world. We talk about the role of government—and I think there is a role—but I will also say it's sensitive. You don't want the government telling you what to eat, too much. It does, but you have to be careful.
It's politically really tricky in every single country. There is not just one simple answer. Every country is different. Different regions of the country are different. There is not just solar that we want to scale, where there's a very simple technological innovation and now the work is just trying to get it to scale.
ROXANA SABERI: Maybe it hasn't been created yet.
SAM KASS: It's being created in lots of different ways, but food is a very complex set of relationships, and the supply chain is incredibly complex. Getting people to try to eat different things is really tough. It is a harder lever to pull for governments, so a lot of people have just not paid much attention to it and sort of sidestepped that issue.
But now, with a global accord, the United States stance aside, a lot of countries—
ROXANA SABERI: The Paris climate conference we're talking about.
SAM KASS: Yes, the COP21. A lot of countries are going to look at, "Okay, where are my emissions coming from?" And most of the world is going to have to look at ag and say, "We have to figure out how to make significant reductions." Because when you look at the curves from food and ag, it's going straight up. There is no sight line to bending the carbon curve when it comes to food and ag. We're going to have to get serious about it.
ROXANA SABERI: What can cities and countries do?
SAM KASS: There is a lot we can do. I think in the end there are two big things: There is how we are producing, but then there is also what we are producing. A lot of people try to figure out how to eat what we're eating and just do it with a lighter footprint.
The reality is if we really want to change how ag is impacting the environment, we have to change what we're eating. We can't keep eating giant steaks.
ROXANA SABERI: What can we eat that would reduce our carbon and methane footprint?
SAM KASS: This is where it gets exciting for me, because this is where climate and health really start to align.
It turns out the healthiest diet and the most climate-smart diet are pretty much the same thing. It's a diverse diet based on plants, with some protein, but not too much. We're eating more vegetables, more fruit, more legumes—legumes are very important—and some protein, but lower down on the food chain.
ROXANA SABERI: Beef or fish or chicken?
SAM KASS: Chicken is one of the best things from a climate perspective we can eat.
ROXANA SABERI: How about turkey? I like turkey.
SAM KASS: Turkey is right there with it. Pork is not as good, but better than beef. Beef and lamb are actually two of the biggest culprits.
ROXANA SABERI: And fish?
SAM KASS: Fish is great, fish is amazing, except obviously we have some real problems with our oceans. We're over-fishing, we've depleted a lot of the stocks, and climate change is going to impact our oceans in ways we don't realize.
What is happening right now is that our oceans are absorbing a lot of the carbon, a lot of the heat that we are emitting, and it's creating acidification in the oceans. The pH of the oceans is starting to rise. Shellfish, lobsters, and shrimp—crustaceans—are starting to have trouble forming their shells, so they're going to become very vulnerable. Experts are very worried that you're going to see a collapse of that whole part of the food chain in the oceans, which would mean a precipitous decline of fish populations in general.
ROXANA SABERI: It would also hurt the populations that rely on fishing for their livelihoods.
SAM KASS: Exactly. You see how all these interconnected pieces start to break down. We have to solve climate to keep our fish stocks even basically stable, forget about over-fishing, which is a whole other set of problems. It is going to take a combination of better-regulated fishing stock and fish farming, as that gets better, if we want to continue to have a bountiful fish supply. But fish is great, both in health and climate.
ROXANA SABERI: The best diet to help the climate, to help the environment, would be mostly vegetables and fruit and some protein; fish, chicken, and then going up to pork and beef.
SAM KASS: Going up. Look, I'm always going to have a steak once in a while. The question is, are we eating a steak every day, every couple of days? I love a pork chop. I'm a chef. I love food, I love to eat, and I'm going to continue to eat those things. We just have to make sure that most meals we're eating is a meal that actually is climate-smart, and I think that is what's going to have to change in our culture.
What's different about food, say, unlike energy, food can actually be part of the solution. Our plants can take carbon out of the air and put it back into the ground, where a lot of the carbon that is now in the air was actually in the soil and has been turned up—we've lost soil, and we've turned up a lot of the carbon over centuries. We actually could get to an agricultural system that is actually helping us solve this problem by sequestering carbon. But we're going to need eaters to start caring about that if we actually want our farmers to value that in the supply chain.
ROXANA SABERI: After we eat, there is also leftover food sometimes, food waste. In 2015 you helped serve a lunch to world leaders at the United Nations, and you made meals with food that would have ended up in the garbage. For example—I saw the menu—it included "landfill salad," which included vegetable scraps. What was the message of that meal?
SAM KASS: I will say that was the craziest meal I've ever been a part of, and I've done some pretty crazy things working for President Obama. At the White House, you cook a lot of high-pressured meals. But I did that lunch with a dear friend of mine, Dan Barber, a great chef in New York, and a great advocate.
This was the meeting leading up to the Paris negotiations, COP21. Ban Ki-moon at the United Nations convened everybody to try to get all the major countries on the same page. There were about 40 heads of state. They had never had a lunch like that before, a convening of that nature, and it was everybody. It was like Xi Jinping and Merkel and Hollande, it was everybody. We wanted to use the food to tell the story of really what was at stake and where there were opportunities to make progress. We convinced the person who was putting it together that this would be a great, provocative thing to do. I thought it was a great idea.
Dan had an amazing team. He had actually done a pop-up using food waste. So we came up with the menu, and I was really excited until two days before the event, when I realized: "What the heck am I doing? I'm serving waste to 80 percent of the world's political power." I got very nervous in a way that I never do.
ROXANA SABERI: Understandable.
SAM KASS: Totally. But Dan and I got to lead off. Every head of state had two minutes. Dan and I had two minutes to present the idea and talk about the role of food in climate change and how it needed to be much more front and center if you actually want to solve this challenge.
It was an amazing success. The food was delicious. What you realize is that we're throwing away incredibly good food, things that have a bruise or that have a weird shape and get tossed, ends, pieces of cheese that are ragged and get tossed. We have too much, and so we have become very lazy about what we consider waste or not. It really forces you to rethink what does efficiency mean. How do we actually leverage all of our resources? How can we do a better job of taking care of them?
That is true globally on a political level. It's also true personally. In the United States, for example, 40 percent of waste comes from homes. We've all thrown away god knows how much food. We have to do a better job figuring out how do we play our part in making sure—
ROXANA SABERI: How do we play our part? What should we be doing to reduce our food waste?
SAM KASS: I think it's a couple of things. I think (1) we need some innovation to make this easier for people, but (2) we just need more consciousness. This is true for health. You eat what you see.
Part of what I've always focused on is how do you set people up for success. From a food waste standpoint, you put all those vegetables in that bottom bin and then you forget about them, and then they sit there. Five, six, seven days later, you're like, "Okay, what am I going to make for dinner?" You pull it out, and things have gone bad. You feel bad, and you throw it away. You're bummed out. You're wasting a bunch of money. The next time, you're like: "You know what? I'm just not even going to buy that anymore." Then you're not buying vegetables. These things are deeply connected.
ROXANA SABERI: That sounds very familiar to me.
SAM KASS: Totally. We all do it. But then you're not buying vegetables, and that's bad for your health.
I think the thing to remember is we need to be more conscious. Just putting the vegetables where you can see them, that's a big change that can help dramatically improve what you use, and there is a bunch of evidence and science and research on that.
ROXANA SABERI: Should we all be composting?
SAM KASS: I think composting is key. I think in the future, in 10 years, we all will be composting. Because right now we have what is a waste stream that should be a really powerful way to put nutrients back into the soil, so we need to use fewer fertilizers which are a great driver of emissions in agriculture. So the more we can take those scraps and end up—in New York City, for example, they have started a composting program in this incredible metropolis. If we can do it here, we can do it anywhere.
ROXANA SABERI: Do you think it should be required by law for people to compost?
SAM KASS: That's a good question. I don't know what I think about that. I'm not sure that would be the best, most effective strategy. I do hope that we get to a place that everybody is composting, and we definitely need to make it possible. Right now there is no infrastructure. We're starting to get some little garbage cans with the green top, which is great, but it needs to be really easy, and it needs to be accessible for everybody. That's the goal. Whether it's a law or not, I'm not sure for something like this. I'd have to think about that.
ROXANA SABERI: Since the lunch that you served at the United Nations in 2015, have you seen the United Nations taking some more steps to reduce food waste, and if not, what more do they need to do?
SAM KASS: It became part of the Sustainable Development Goals 12.3—of which I'm a proud champion—and we actually have a big meeting at the United Nations General Assembly coming up. This needs more money and more innovation. Depending where you are in a Western, wealthier setting, it's a different set of challenges than, say, in developing nations where they are also wasting about a third of what's produced, but a lot of it is because there is not infrastructure for storage, transportation, there's no cold storage, or there is not enough labor to harvest, so a lot of crops just get left in the fields.
We have to take very pragmatic approaches to how we're going to solve some of these challenges depending on where we are, but it needs to be a priority. If we solve these challenges around health and sustainability in our food system, we can impact economic growth, national security, instability, our health care system, and climate change, which I think is by far in a way the biggest existential threat we face as a world.
Here is one issue that can have all those repercussions across many of the problems that we face if we focus in the right area. I think that is what food affords us in a way that we've really missed, and there is a big opportunity there, and it's quite exciting.
ROXANA SABERI: Food, or the lack of it, has also been linked to issues like political and economic stability. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization has said that the biggest loss in cropland because of climate change is likely going to be in Africa, and President Obama has said most of the world's poor work in agriculture, so they're most likely to be affected the greatest by climate change. How could this affect stability in different parts of the world?
SAM KASS: I think we're already seeing it. So often we talk about these issues like they're going to happen in the future. They're happening right now. A lot of observers of Syria will tell you that it's not the sole reason we've seen the civil war. But what happened right before that was a massive famine, and about 4 million farmers came off the land because they couldn't farm anymore because of the massive drought that had been going on for years.
If people don't have food or a livelihood, it's going to lead to major instability. I want to be very clear: It's not the sole reason that we've seen the civil war in Syria, but it was an absolute contributor to the instability in the country, and that is just the beginning. I think we have to take that seriously.
What is funny is we have these funny debates in politics. If you talk to the military, climate change is one of the biggest threats they see on the horizon.
ROXANA SABERI: In what way?
SAM KASS: For this exact reason. You have massive migrations of millions and millions of people all over the world who are moving to find water and basic food. That is instability that our military isn't going to be able to handle, or they're very worried about, way more than some of these smaller groups. That is a big threat for the country and a big threat for the world.
This is the thing. There are not that many strategies that if you focus in on them can have such broad outcomes, and this is one of them. But if we don't get really aggressive, much more aggressive than we are, forget about pulling a—Paris was a start, it wasn't even where we need to go. There was nobody at Paris, no scientists think that if we do what we've agreed to in Paris, it's enough. But it was definitely the most impactful framework you could come up with. Not only can we not withdraw or go back, we have to double down.
ROXANA SABERI: The Paris climate agreement did not talk about food or food waste.
SAM KASS: No, it didn't, but it didn't mention anything specifically in terms of the actions countries should take. Countries are supposed to go back, take an analysis of what their footprint is, and then figure out their strategies to reduce their emissions, which is fine, because every country is different. But there are few countries that are going to be able to actually meet those targets and not tackle the emissions from food.
But if we don't double down on Paris—because Paris was just a starting point, nobody there thinks that that was enough—forget about withdrawing or going back, if we don't double and triple down on this, we're going to have a future where growing food is really hard, where a lot of the products that we eat today won't exist—at least not for most people—like coffee, chocolate, wine.
ROXANA SABERI: That's really going to hit home.
SAM KASS: Our kids won't have coffee, chocolate, and wine unless you're like super-wealthy. Think about that. It is just an example of the dramatic nature of change that is going to be hitting our food system, let alone the massive economic and political upheaval that we're going to see. The world is going to be a very different place, so there's no time for these kinds of silly debates.
ROXANA SABERI: We've got to get moving.
SAM KASS: We've got to roll up our sleeves.
ROXANA SABERI: Let's talk a little bit about hunger.
SAM KASS: Yes.
ROXANA SABERI: The World Food Programme says that women are more likely to be affected by hunger than men, and that when women are malnourished the kids that they give birth to are more likely to be underweight, and they are more likely to die before the age of five. What kind of nutrition is important for pregnant mothers to get, and what more needs to be done to help them in those places where they are malnourished?
SAM KASS: Basic calories is a big challenge in many places. I just want to make sure that people, if they hear the question, don't think like some far-off place in Africa.
ROXANA SABERI: It's here in the United States.
SAM KASS: It's everywhere, and it's definitely here in the United States. One in five kids is food-insecure in the United States, one in five.
ROXANA SABERI: Which is amazing when you consider all the excesses of food that we have in this country.
SAM KASS: Right. It's just unconscionable. We need to make sure when we hear that, we can close our eyes and see people all over the world, including blocks away from where we live. In every school, there isn't a school chef or teacher that wouldn't tell you that they have a significant population of kids who come to school on Monday having not eaten anything over the weekend, maybe a bag of chips or two. Every school chef I've met, they pack bags for those kids. They will, out of their own money, get a backpack and just put some food in it so they have something to eat over the weekend. I just have to make sure that's clear.
Part of it is that we need some basic support for those who are most vulnerable. It's hard to answer this question in the abstract because depending on what country you're talking about, the challenges are very different. Here it's not that we don't have enough resources, we're just distributing these resources really unequally. In other nations there is a real shortage of resources or access to the market, so the answers are going to vary.
But I think we need to make sure we're saying to ourselves, "It is in everyone's best interest"—from an economic standpoint, from a political standpoint, certainly from an ethical standpoint—"that people have basic sustenance." If we had one dollar to spend, the best dollar to spend it on is a mom who has just given birth to a baby, in terms of the long-term outcomes about what that dollar can do for health and well-being.
ROXANA SABERI: I don't know if you know this off the top of your head, but are there organizations that people can donate to that would then send that money to malnourished mothers?
SAM KASS: Yes. There is an organization called 1,000 Days. They are an incredible organization. They do work focused on the first thousand days of life because there is ample research, one study after another on brain development, on stunting, on all kinds of health outcomes, educational outcomes, being a productive person, that those first thousand days are the most critical. If you support the mom and the child through those first thousand days, you can have a transformative impact on the long-term life of that person.
ROXANA SABERI: They're active in the United States and overseas?
SAM KASS: They are doing work all over the place. They're an amazing organization.
There is a lot that are doing great work. I hate only picking one. I love everybody else's work, too, but they're the one that comes to mind.
ROXANA SABERI: Let's also talk about technology and food. You're involved with a relatively new company called Innit, which uses technology to help people cook at home. How does this work?
SAM KASS: Technology is really interesting when it comes to food. There is a lot of resistance to technology in our food. There's a lot of nostalgia about grandma cooking the gnocchi like they have for a hundred years, and I'm all part of that. I love that part of food. I love the history and the tradition.
There is a duality in terms of technology and food. There are some versions of technology in food, like Soylent, which is basically like Ensure or some fortified drink to replace meals. That is a dystopia that I want no part of.
On the other hand, technology has kind of missed food mostly. If you think about our kitchens, for example, just to talk about Innit, our kitchens are basically how they've been for a hundred years, minus the microwave. That is kind of weird when you think about how transformed our lives are in every other way by our phones, our computers, the Internet, and everything.
Relative to the rest of our lives, food just takes a lot longer and is way less convenient than everything else. Everything is moving three, four, five times faster, and yet we're still in our kitchens, we're either popping in a frozen dinner—which definitely has not helped our health—or we're still very old-school.
I think we're going to really need technology across the entire supply chain to bring some innovations to help produce healthy food in a more sustainable way, and do it in a way that's cheaper. Because right now there's an imbalance on cost for people. I think it's going to be critical.
We have to make sure the technology is being used to benefit eaters, and that is not always how it is being thought of. But I think if we can help invest in the future of food that focuses on those tools to help people, we can actually create a much better, more sustainable, and healthier system.
ROXANA SABERI: Why is it better to cook your food than to eat out or pop a frozen meal into the microwave?
SAM KASS: What it comes down to, you would never put a pound of salt in your food or a giant thing of butter. You end up cooking differently than other people who are cooking for you on average—not like some chef at your neighborhood restaurant, because they typically actually don't do that bad of a job—it's the bigger processed food where you run into trouble. The bigger chain restaurants is where you're going to run into food on the restaurant side, or the bigger frozen meal stuff. They're not making that thinking like, What is really best for you? There are cost requirements and profit margin and all kinds of other issues that are going into that.
When you look at the evidence, if you cook, you're eating more vegetables, more fruit, more whole grains. You're eating less; you eat less when you cook on average. You're getting less sugar, less fat, and less salt. That's just the facts.
One of the things I say is if you do anything, just cook one more time a week—don't worry about what you cook, cook whatever you want—on average, you're going to be doing better than if you don't.
ROXANA SABERI: Is it possible to cook yourself a meal fairly quickly, inexpensively, nutritiously, and still have it taste good?
SAM KASS: It's funny you mention it. I have a cookbook coming out in the spring of 2018 that will tell you how to do just that.
ROXANA SABERI: It will have some recipes.
SAM KASS: It will have a lot of recipes.
ROXANA SABERI: Can you give us a sneak peek? What's an example of something—
SAM KASS: I just think the thing is you've got to keep it simple. Also, I think part of the problem, on the other hand, as we talk about this ideal of what good eating is, is that everybody should be eating like perfect vegetables that are seasonal, local, and organic, and that everything should be sustainable and everything needs to be—
ROXANA SABERI: Does it need to be organic?
SAM KASS: No, of course not.
ROXANA SABERI: You don't have to buy organic carrots, and it's still okay?
SAM KASS: Listen, I think if you can, you can afford it, and they're there, then I think it's better. But I think I'd much rather you eat a non-organic carrot than not a carrot, for sure. Anybody who tells you otherwise is wrong. They're just wrong.
The thing is, how do you just do a better job? How do you just take a step in the right direction? You still eat a Twinkie. I still love you, it's fine.
ROXANA SABERI: As long as it's not every day.
SAM KASS: Yes, as long as you're not doing it every day. That's the point. All this talk of food, I think it's also important that we can't get crazy about it. We have this weird obsession. It's like, relax, let's throw some green beans in the pan with an onion and a little butter and a squeeze of lemon, and it'll be delicious. Grill yourself a piece of chicken, and you're on your way.
It doesn't have to be complicated, it doesn't have to be some overhaul, you can still have your cheeseburger. But we have to be doing better, and that's really, I think, the way to focus in on it.
ROXANA SABERI: Speaking of not getting crazy about things, I have to ask you: Right now a lot of people are into gluten-free diets or non-dairy diets. What do you think of these, especially if you're not gluten-intolerant? Is it still healthy to be gluten-free?
SAM KASS: Yes, you can be totally healthy and not eat gluten. I think all these diets miss the point. I think we're constantly looking for the magic bullet in the United States: What's the pill that solves all of our problems? That is just not how this works, unfortunately.
I think they are pretty baseless when it comes to the science. Basically the reason why people do okay on gluten-free is because they end up eating a lot fewer empty carbs, which is good. A lot of times these diets work because people end up eating less processed food, so they end up doing better, but not because they're lactose-free.
Whatever strategy you need to take, take, but I think it's important to try to—if you just focus on eating more fruits and vegetables, more whole grain, eating a little less, having your proteins be lean, you're going to do really well.
ROXANA SABERI: What about the idea that cooking your vegetables is better for digestion?
SAM KASS: That's a very old tradition. I'm sure there is some truth to it.
Here's what I think technology and innovation science is going to find, is that everybody is very different.
ROXANA SABERI: So you can be able to program a machine saying: "This is what I can digest. This is what I don't do well with."
SAM KASS: Yes. You have 100 billion little bacteria in your stomach that are regulating what we're finding is basically everything, and has direct correlations to allergies, asthma, obesity, diabetes, and all this stuff in your stomach, and that we're all different. Between that and genetics, I think we're going to actually start to figure out what do you need versus what do I need. I think we're going to find that some people probably digest foods that are cooked better, but you lose nutrients when you do that. Other people may be fine with raw vegetables, and they get the nutrients. I think people are different. I think this idea that one way is the only way is just a joke.
I think we all need to take a deep breath, enjoy our food, try not to gorge ourselves, and try to eat as many vegetables as we can, and we're going to be all right. We're going to be okay.
ROXANA SABERI: It sounds like you're optimistic about the future in that way. How do you think the way we make and eat food is going to shift over the next few decades?
SAM KASS: It's a good question. There are a lot of big questions that we will have to answer that will decide that, so I don't think it's set and we're just playing it out. There is not a destiny here.
I think our health and climate change are going to be the two forces that most shape the decisions we make as a society on how we're growing, producing, processing, and consuming food. I think it's going to become much more difficult to do that. I think it is going to drive a lot of innovation.
I think how we engineer our crops is going to dramatically change. The CRISPR technology that people are starting to hear about around gene editing, you're mostly hearing it about diseases like cystic fibrosis and cancer, how are we going to be able to edit the genes and deal with those. All of that is in play for food. There isn't a plant or an animal that won't be edited in some way in the next 10-15 years.
We will have a big debate about what we're editing them for. Is it so that you can spray more chemicals on them or is it that our wheat now has three times the fiber? As long as we're editing things like wheat so it has more fiber, which is better for people, I think that's going to be a benefit that can dramatically help people eat better. That whole piece regarding food, I think, is going to become a real focus over the next 10 years about the role of that kind of technology in our food.
We will see where our culture lands. I don't think it is possible for us to continue on a path where one in three people in this country will have diabetes, and that's growing around the world. That's the United States, but that's global.
ROXANA SABERI: That's an astonishing statistic.
SAM KASS: It's astonishing. It's literally incomprehensible about the impacts of that. There's not going to be some magic pill that solves that. It's incredibly costly to deal with this.
You see these rates growing all over the world. In the Middle East they're skyrocketing, in Asia they're skyrocketing, in India it's rampant, Mexico, South America. This is a global phenomenon now. People like to think, Yeah, the overweight Americans. This is a global phenomenon. There are more overweight and obese people than there are malnourished or hungry people in this world now.
I just don't see that it is possible to continue down this path. Governments are already getting much more aggressive in tackling this. They just have to. Their economies and healthcare systems can't take it. I think that is going to really change the policies that are shaping what we grow and how we grow it, but also the culture. I think people are becoming much more aware of the impact of food on our health. That basic connection had been lost for a few generations. There are great things that can come once we reconnect those two ideas.
ROXANA SABERI: Thank you for joining us for this conversation with Ethics Matter. Sam Kass, it's been a pleasure speaking with you.
SAM KASS: Such a pleasure. Thanks so much.