Student Stories

From Hyde Park to the White House: Earth Day with Sam Kass (AB '04)

Alumnus and food entrepreneur Sam Kass (AB’04, Lab ’98) discussed the role and future of food in society with WBEZ journalist Monica Eng as part of the University’s celebration of Earth Day.

While the conversation spanned topics such as  Kass’ career to the high-level agriculture policy, it centered on the power of food. “Food represents so much in your cultural symbols for class and race and geography and political orientation,” Kass said.

Kass has had a long career in a variety of fields related to food, which launched during his time at the College. A cooking job during his study abroad experience in Vienna was a major part of his food education, despite the fact that he previously had tried and failed to work at Hyde Park landmark Valois Cafeteria. He also credits the College with giving him experiences and approaches that have shaped his passion for food. When he was a History major, the department helped him develop an intellectual approach towards solving questions and problems that he has used throughout his career.

Kass worked in kitchens around the world before opening his own food in 2007 and becoming a personal chef to former president Barack Obama and his family. He followed the Obamas to the White House in 2009, where he served as an Assistant Chef, the Senior Policy Advisor of Healthy Food Initiatives, and eventually the Executive Director for Michelle Obama’s signature healthy-eating initiative “Let's Move!” He left the White House in late 2014 to pursue a variety of private initiatives focused on food, which he views as inherently tied to environmental issues.

“Part of what food has, that we haven’t even harnessed, is a language to start explaining some of the environmental issues and challenges that we face,” he said.”[Food] helps translate those big ideas that are very hard to understand itnto something that’s pragmatic and tangible."

The conversation topics varied as widely as a buffet, from his experiences in the White House (he once served 30 world leaders food waste to inspire better policy), to school lunch policy (he’s been inspired by visiting South Korean schools), to his advice for college students on healthy eating.

“Willpower is a joke, it doesn’t exist,” Kass said. “Where you walk in the cafeteria has a huge impact on what you actually consume. I would try to be strategic; know what sections you’re good for, go to that. The food in your room, try to have it as healthy as you can.”

Kass came to campus as part of the Frizzell Family Speaker and Learning Series, a student-organized series of events that examine the environment, health, and agriculture. The series was founded in memory of Alexandra “Alex” Frizzell, a University student who passed away in 2013. Alex studied environmental economics and aspired to be a physician, goals that inspire the focus of the series.

In an introduction to the event Erin Frizzell discussed her sister’s passion for improving the world through food.  “She really wanted to enrich the community that she lived in.She did it through day-to-day activities where she was a part of the community, and she viewed everyone as family. She always wanted to be there to inspire and help them live their best lives.”

The fourth annual Frizzell Family Speaker and Learning Series was co-sponsored by the Institute of Politics and hosted in conjunction with Earth Fest, the University of Chicago’s celebration of Earth Day sponsored by 16 campus partners and highlighting the campus’ commitment to sustainability. Kass applauded the College students working to promote sustainability on campus.

“These young people get it. There’s no debate over climate change, there’s no debate over ‘Do we need healthier food?,’” Kass  said. “They’re just trying to solve the problem.”