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Michelle Obama's fight against childhood obesity brings California chefs to the White House

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First Lady Michelle Obama put out a call to action recently, encouraging America's chefs to work with their communities as part of the Let's Move campaign against childhood obesity.

But it seems like an awfully long way to go from inviting 500 chefs to view the White House garden to achieving healthful eating in schools and at home.

Two chefs who attended the Chefs Move to Schools event—Percy Whatley, executive chef at The Ahwahnee Dining Room in Yosemite National Park, and Devin Alexander, healthy food chef and cookbook author—share their insight on combating childhood obesity

ON THE WHITE HOUSE EXPERIENCE

"The White House experience was surreal," says Whatley, who also recently competed in the prestigious Bocuse d'Or competition. "It's amazing how many chefs were there; it took up to 90 minutes to get everyone through the three security checkpoints."

The White House garden, an 1,100-square-foot patch of land that the First Lady had planted on the South Lawn, "wasn't as grand as you'd think, but it was very well-manicured and bountiful," he says. Along with organic vegetables like late-season kale and broccoli, the garden is already putting forth summer items like eggplants, blackberries and a thriving herb patch.

WHY CHEFS CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE

Part of Obama's anti-childhood obesity campaign's focus is on getting chefs into the schools to share their skills and knowledge, and to figure out how to cut through the red tape around public school lunch programs. Right now, schools cafeterias have a budget of $2.68 per student, but once you whittle away overhead and labor costs, about 90 cents per student remains.

"We are the food minds of America," says Whatley. "We need to set back the clock to where food was wholesome, before the packaged food industry was part of our repertoire."

TIPS ON GETTING KIDS INVOLVED WITH FOOD

Show them the land

"If there's any way to get your child into a garden, that will get them involved with the process," says Alexander. "Not everyone has time to go to a community garden, but if you can grow something at home or in school, it's not expensive to maintain."

Whatley notes, "The biggest inspiration I've seen for kids is to visit a farm; or if you're in a city, go to a farmers market to expose them to that rainbow of colorful produce."

Make education enjoyable

In the best way possible, 'use" your kids to make dinnertime easier," says Alexander. "I have a friend who calls the child helping out that night her sous chef, and it really gets them involved with family meal."

Whatley suggests, "How about an afterschool program where you teach kids about sourcing their food, like making ketchup from scratch? Or have blindfolded tastings of raw fruits and vegetables and let their imagination run wild."

Kitchen tours, cooking demonstrations and even etiquette classes are just a few other ways he's seen kids participate in food education the fun way.

Don't get lost in the goal

Alexander, whose books include The Most Decadent Diet and I Can't Believe it's Not Fattening!, recommends working with your cravings, not against them.

"I try to make sure kids never feel deprived," she says. "Do they love brownies? Figure out how to make them healthier, and remember it's OK to put one in their lunch box. Instead of ordering pizza, make it at home. If your kids are addicted to chicken nuggets, take a piece of grilled chicken, cut it into strips and serve it with a dip."

She adds, "The only fighting a parent should have to do at the kitchen table is making sure kids get their required fruits and vegetables every day. But you can't feed them canned green beans every night. Sit down with them and figure out what they will eat."

RESOURCES FOR LOS ANGELES PARENTS

Little Feet in the Kitchen - Cookbook author and Studio City mom, Jennifer Evans Gardner, turns timid eaters into adventurous chefs with grown-up palates by breaking down the process with hands-on cooking classes, field trips and more.

Hipkids - An offshoot of the popular Hipcooks schools on Robertson Boulevard and Brewery Artist's Lofts, Hipkids teaches kids how to create exotic dishes and flavors, as well as basic knife skills and safety tips.

Los Angeles Community Garden Council - Find a community garden near your neighborhood or learn how to build one yourself.

Slow Food USA Time for Lunch - Learn more about the federal Child Nutrition Act and ongoing movements to increase funding for school lunch programs.

Photos courtesy of Executive Chef Percy Whatley.

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