'Let's Move!' Chief Weighs In on Taco Tuesday Flap

·Editor

Deb Eschmeyer, executive director of “Let’s Move!,” takes the TEDx Manhattan stage to talk up FNV.com, an online marketing and advertising campaign to promote the benefits of fruits and vegetables to kids. Photo: Jeff O’Heir.  

The web lit up last week with the story of Richard “Trip” Klibert, a second grader from LaPlace, La., who wrote Michelle Obama asking her why she “ruined” Taco Tuesday by requiring schools, as part of her “Let’s Move!” healthy food initiative, to serve tortillas and “terrible” pizza crust made with whole wheat.

Yahoo Food sat down with Deb Eschmeyer, executive director of “Let’s Move!” and a senior advisor for nutrition policy at the White House, at a TEDX conference focused on food in New York City this weekend.

Eschmeyer, who grew up on a dairy farm in rural Ohio and, as co-founder of FoodCorps and through other roles, has spent her career combating childhood obesity and food insecurity, addressed the Taco Tuesday flap, and some of the challenges she faces as she tries to promote healthier lifestyles among the nation’s school children.

Yahoo Food: Many of the online comments about the whole wheat taco story were negative, referring to the government’s efforts to force schools into serving healthier lunches. How do you overcome those types of challenges, especially since so many health initiatives begin in the home?

Eschmeyer: I really don’t let that faze me because I have been doing this on the ground for so long. I think sometimes the hype of the animosity is more than it really is, because farmers, the food service infrastructure, and teachers all want to do this right. It’s not like there’s a ‘we versus them.’ We’re really all in this together. And a lot of times it’s easier to profile a fight, that’s a sexier story, when actually the food service infrastructure is trying really hard to meet the standards, and 90 percent of the schools have met the standards. This should not be a partisan issue. Communities on the ground are not arguing about this. They’re making it work. No one is against our children’s future.

YF: My wife’s an elementary school teacher and she says many of her students don’t like the whole wheat tacos and pizza crust. A handful of the students, she said, also leave the cafeteria hungry because the new portion sizes are too small. Are those issues real and, if so, are you addressing them in any way?

DE: This is the first time the nutrition standards have been updated in 15 years. It was drastic. We were finally matching the national school lunch program with the Institute of Medicine’s recommendations, which, by the way, were made in 2007, prior to this administration. The food service infrastructure staff (has) been used to something for their entire or half of their professional careers, and then there’s this drastic change. There’s a sliding scale of time to adjust. It’s common sense that policies take time to meet with what’s happening in the cafeterias, with food service management, with the food preparation that has to occur to make sure … the whole wheat tortillas and whole wheat pizza are holding up.

I’m seeing actually that there’s no difference in acceptance from the kids between the whole-wheat pizza and the white flour pizza. They’re so used to it now. You can’t taste the difference. It’s finding out which food products you may need a little bit more time to work with … and things like that. So I hear your wife on that one. I think part of it again is just giving people time. We’ll get there. It’s worth working it out. 

Photo: FoodCorps

Eschmeyer tends to an urban garden as part of her FoodCorps initiative.

YF: After two months on the job, what’s been your biggest challenge with “Let’s Move!” and how are you overcoming it?

DE: There’s so much opportunity, that’s one of the challenges. There’s so much that can be done in all of these different spaces, which goes to my point that there’s not one solution. You have to look at what can be done on the community level, what can be done by corporations, what can be done by foundations, and what can be done at the policy level. So it’s about looking at all of the different layers. For me, I think the challenge is, especially now with 21 months left in this administration, what can we move the needle on for the most important issues, in the quickest and most powerful way, that creates a healthier America. What can I be putting my time into?

YF: What’s the most important thing you’re doing now to move that needle?

DE: Some of the things are with the new, innovative strategies, like FNV.com [an online marketing and advertising campaign introduced last month by Mrs. Obama to herald the benefits of fruits and vegetables to kids]. That’s where we have to challenge ourselves to come up with greater ideas. And the other part of it is looking at what we’ve already accomplished and make sure we don’t go backwards. We have to make sure that everything we put so much work into, that everything that has happened in last five years, we continue to make progress and measure our progress. We cannot lose that momentum.

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