First Lady Michelle Obama is on a laudable food crusade in America -- promoting the healthful benefits of fresh, local and sustainably grown nutrition, including produce raised in the world's most famous vegetable garden: that photogenic patch of organic land on the White House South Lawn.
But her office does not want you to know how meat, milk and dairy served at White House events was produced.
Even before moving to the White House, Mrs. Obama made it clear that she and her family enjoyed eating food that was raised free of petrochemicals, pesticides, antibiotics and hormones. "You know, in my household, over the last year we have just shifted to organic," she said in an unusually candid moment to The New Yorker while on the 2008 campaign trail.
Supporters of sustainable, organic agriculture were also cheered when the Obamas brought their personal chef from Chicago, Sam Kass, to Washington to help create meals for the First Family. Kass is a major advocate of localized, organic agriculture. "We find ourselves in a fight to salvage a food system that has been ravaged by an approach of quantity over quality," he once wrote. "The industry our society has built around food is harmful and unsustainable."
Soon after the inauguration, The New York Times gushed that "the White House gets fresh fruits and vegetables from farms in Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey," and that Michelle Obama had served organic wine at her first big White House meal, a governors' dinner in February, 2009.
And she planted that garden heard 'round the world. Suggested by Alice Waters, the plot consists of raised beds of rich soil amended with official White House compost, crab meal, lime and local sand, instead of commercial fertilizer, and ladybugs and praying mantises in lieu of pesticides. It has helped to feed hundreds of visitors -- from Kings to kindergartners -- at official White House functions.
There are even two beehives that produce organic honey for the Obamas, their staff and guests.
And so, when I wrote to the White House to inquire about the meat, dairy and eggs that are served up on site -- and how much of it is produced in industrial-style concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs, or factory farms) -- I thought they would be pleased to share the information.
I didn't expect the White House to source ALL of its animal protein from local, certified organic, sustainably run family farms, but I thought the Obamas would enjoy boasting of any local poultry and pork that they did procure from surrounding independent farms, much as they had done about buying fruit from the orchards of nearby states.
"Does the White House buy eggs, dairy products, beef, pork, poultry and other meats from sources that raise their animals in industrial-style concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs)?" I asked. "And does the White house buy any of those same products from any sources that would be considered, or certified as humanely raised, organic, sustainable, pasture-fed, local, and/or raised by small and medium-sized farms that are not contractors to large corporations?"
I also wanted to know if the sourcing of animal products was any different for food prepared for the First Family, food offered at special events and food served in the White House cafeteria.
These seemed like reasonable questions to me. I told Mrs. Obama's office that I did not need specifics on the names or even locations of farms and companies that produce the White House's food, in recognition of security concerns. But they did not wish to comment.
"I'm afraid we're not going to be able to address your questions at this time," wrote Katie McCormick Lelyveld, Mrs. Obama's Press Secretary.
At first I was surprised and a bit bemused. After all, is it really a state secret whether the Obama family prefers Tyson "Evencook Chicken Breasts" to pasture-raised birds from, say, Joel Salatin's Polyface Farm in Swoop, VA, 150 miles away?
But after thinking about it, I can't really say I blame them. In fact, I can sympathize. The topic is that volcanic.
Virtually everything the Obamas have said and done around food (of all things) -- the organic garden, the fieldtrips to Five Guys, the arugula monologues -- has landed them in somebody's pot of boiling vitriol, on the left or right.
For Barack and especially Michelle Obama, sadly, food has become so political, and politics have become so food-sensitive, that it's wiser to keep quiet about what's for dinner, they reckon, than to actually wade into a frank national dialogue about modern industrial agricultural production.
I think they probably learned this depressing lesson during the Great Garden Backlash of 2009. Last March, Mid America CropLife Association, which represents Big Ag and pesticide companies, lectured the First Lady in a widely circulated missive about her chemical-free veggie patch.
"As you go about planning and planting the White House garden, we respectfully encourage you to recognize the role conventional agriculture plays in the US in feeding the ever-increasing population, contributing to the US economy and providing a safe and economical food supply," the group wrote, before sending an email to its supporters moaning that, "the thought of it being organic," made CropLife officials "shudder."
"We have no problem with this concept," an economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation told NPR at the time. "But understand that you're making lifestyle choices here about how you want your food produced. Fine. But don't denigrate the other approaches to food production."
The White House simply cannot win in answering where its meat, milk and eggs come from. (Fascinatingly, The New York Times reported that Laura Bush "insisted that fresh, organic foods be served in the White House, but did not broadcast that fact to the public").
Think about it: If Obama officials confirmed that all their animal protein was procured from independent, sustainable, local, "humanely raised" sources, Agribusiness would eat them for breakfast. Tea Partiers, Republicans and Big Government Deriders would howl at such extravagant spending and "elitist" purchasing. Rush Limbaugh's head would catch on fire.
On the other hand, to admit that all White House meat, milk and eggs came from the very same polluting animal factories that Obama's EPA and USDA have vowed to crack down upon would cause environmentalist and rural activists to equally cry foul -- and fowl.
I suspect that the truth lies somewhere in the middle: that White House chefs buy both sustainable and CAFO-raised protein. But admitting that would only invite "wishy-washy" derision from both sides.
To sympathize with the Obamas, however, is not to excuse them. At that Governors' Dinner last year, the menu featured "wagyu beef," the American version of Kobe beef, which is not only finished on grains; it's finished on beer as well.
And if the Obamas are loathe to appear "elitist," they should serve regular old grass-fed beef rather than wagyu.
One wagyu Website lists sirloin strip at $150 for four 12-oz steaks, and four 8-oz filet mignons cost a cool $300 (one assumes the White House negotiated a better price).
Even so, there are a few steps the White House kitchen staff could take -- if they have not done so already -- to bring less factory-farmed meat, milk and eggs into the presidential mix:
- They could consult with the Animal Welfare Approved label on sourcing at least some products that are raised according to the strictest humane and environmental standards.
As Michelle Obama herself once said: "You can begin in your own cupboard by eliminating processed food, trying to cook a meal a little more often, trying to incorporate more fruits and vegetables."
If the First Lady can recommend that people "eliminate processed food," shouldn't she also be able to discuss alternatives to factory-farmed meat without suffering the slings and arrows of indignant opposition?
Again, I sympathize: This collective reluctance to discuss our national nutritional provenance is just silly.
David Kirby is author of Animal Factory - The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment. (St. Martin's Press)