By Dave Thier
When news broke that White House chef Sam Kass had been given the title "senior policy adviser for healthy food initiatives," most reports treated the promotion as unprecedented. WorldNetDaily snidely dubbed Kass the "health food czar," while Judicial Watch decried the appointment as cronyism.
But, as Obama Foodorama points out, critics probably didn't realize Kass isn't the first chef to wield an official title in the Obama White House.
Dan Barber, chef at Blue Hill Restaurant in Tarrytown, N.Y., is a member of the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, while D.C.-area restaurateur Jose Andres belongs to the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory board.
Both chefs help make up groups of unusual federal policy advisers -- from sports stars to airline officials and resort operators -- and both have been involved in activism far removed from their kitchens. Andres' most recent project focuses on bringing solar ovens to Haiti, and Barber was invited to speak at January's World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
For his part, Kass has kept his political life more closely tied to the Obamas, doing things like working with Michelle Obama on her "Let's Move!" kids' health initiative. In fact, his new title was described by the White House not as promotion but as recognition, and does not carry with it any duties beyond what he's already been performing.
Awarding titles to chefs like Kass, Andres and Barber offers official acknowledgment of a fast-growing phenomenon: As the obesity epidemic connects food to questions about agricultural subsidies, health care costs and school lunches, chefs previously more concerned with port wine reductions than politics are eagerly entering the policymaking fray.
For instance, Tom Colicchio of Bravo's "Top Chef" and Food Network stars Ellie Krieger and Rachael Ray all testified recently before Congress in support of a more robust Child Nutrition Act -- and even the otherwise cute Ray hardened up quickly when she got to the legislature.
"Find the money now and get it done or you are going to be part of sinking our ship down the line," she said in criticizing a reduced version of the bill, according to the Huffington Post.
True be told, food has long been intertwined with politics: High bread prices helped to foment the French revolution of 1789, for example, and 19th-century European empires were in large part propelled by the pursuit of tea and spices. But in late 20th-century America, unprecedented prosperity turned what had previously been humanity's chief concern into an afterthought.
Now, overabundance has eclipsed hunger as the United States' primary nutrition worry, and gourmet chefs -- those traditional agents of excess -- have emerged as unusual supporters of health and moderation.
Though America will likely never see "fry cook" as an elected position, both Kass' new title and the reaction to it suggest that the modern politicization of food will only continue.