Elyse Cohen served as the first-ever Deputy Director of Let's Move!, the First Lady's initiative to raise a healthier generation of kids. A role she served in for two years, Let's Move! engages the public and private sectors, and is also a driving force behind critical food policies. As the sun sets on the Obama administration, we look at the lasting impacts of the White House to make it easier for American families to make healthier choices.
How did your passions for food systems and public health develop?
I’m fortunate in that my passion for this work is both personal and professional, which I believe helps to keep me so committed and devoted to this work. Food is something that’s so universal. From basic nourishment to being a conduit for creating opportunities that bring diverse groups of people together, food is always the focal point. For many it’s a source of struggle and for others it’s often associated with some of life’s favorite moments, but food is a necessity and should be available, in its best form, to everyone. I think there is both tremendous opportunity and need to improve our food system on a national and even global scale. If we don’t collectively work on improving our food system, we’re going to run up against even more challenges to nourish our planet and people. My personal passion for cooking, bringing people together around good food and conversation, and interest in how food impacts our lifestyle and health, have also played a key role in my passion for this work.
My interest in all of this started over a decade ago when I learned what a critical crisis childhood obesity was in our country. I knew this was something I wanted to work on, and so, I began this journey of working towards solutions that could help solve this problem. Much of my work was through the lens of social marketing and behavior change. As many of us do, I quickly learned how complex this issue was. There’s no quick fix for solving a challenge like this because there are so many factors that contribute to it. Actually making change requires work and commitment from every sector of our population--from business leaders to policy makers, non-profits, community leaders, school professionals, and entrepreneurs. Each sector of society plays a unique role in improving the way we grow, process, access, price, educate, and even market our food. They all need to be involved if we want to truly make an impact.
As you know, we live in a country at time when one in five children live in food insecure homes, one in three in our city. At the same time, we are facing childhood obesity and more than one in three children and adolescents are overweight or obese. What do you make of these statistics, how did we get here, and how do we move forward?
The two have become increasingly interconnected. It’s hard to talk about childhood obesity without talking about food insecurity. I think a lot of this comes down to a need to reinvent our food system--work that so many people have dedicated their lives to. It’s no longer just about what kids are eating, it’s much bigger than that. It’s about how our food is grown, how our food is processed, how our food is priced, how our food is accessed, and even how our food is marketed, to kids and families. We need to continue to work toward making it easier for American families to make healthier choices, and all these factors play an important role in this. These statistics are true and startling. These are statistics that have taken years to create so it’s certainly going to take many more years of hard work, innovation and investment to overcome.
"It’s no longer just about what kids are eating, it’s much bigger than that. It’s about how our food is grown, how our food is processed, how our food is priced, how our food is accessed, and even how our food is marketed, to kids and families."
For the first time in years, new data was released from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention back in 2014 that showed a significant decline in obesity in children ages two to five. Statistics like these are promising, but we still have a long way to go. We’re seeing an increase and innovation and technology and I think we’ll continue to see a lot more over the next 10-20 years. We’re at an exciting time in the food movement where we’re just beginning to see traction and really need to keep putting energy and creativity into this work.
Can you tell us more about the Let’s Move! Initiative and how it got off the ground?
Let’s Move! is First Lady Michelle Obama’s initiative to help America raise a healthy generation of kids and families by making it easier for families to make healthy choices. Because we know there’s no magic bullet when it comes to solving for obesity and health, Let’s Move! really works to employ a diverse set of strategies and tactics, from working to push for food policies, such as new school lunch standards, through collaborating with the private sector on public-private partnerships that bring accountability and change to the food industry, to working with celebrities and athletes to support marketing of healthier products to kids.
Let’s Move! was launched in February of 2010. The story behind it is that not so long ago the First Lady was a busy working mom with a husband who frequently traveled. She was struggling to keep her daughters healthy just like other parents around the country. This, combined with some guidance from her then-pediatrician, quickly made her realize that if she was struggling with these challenges, surely other families around the country were struggling too. It was during this time that she decided, if then-Senator Barack Obama won the presidential election, she was going to make it a priority to help raise awareness and support for this work…and that’s just what she did.
Photos from the White House Kitchen Garden courtesy of Elyse
She began a national conversation about childhood obesity when she broke ground speaking at the White House Kitchen Garden eight years ago, with children from a local elementary school. This conversation quickly grew into what is now the Let’s Move! initiative. Since then the White House Kitchen Garden has engaged hundreds of children and inspired communities and schools across the country to create their very own garden. By engaging kids with food, they’re more likely to try new fruits and vegetables, and that’s been a big step forward in helping kids eat healthier. As part of Let’s Move!, the First Lady has planted and harvested the garden with kids each year followed by preparing and eating a healthy meal together with the kids that are in the garden.
To this day, the White House chefs are guided by the garden when it comes to making meals for the First Family, and for official functions like state dinners. Produce that isn’t used is donated to Miriam’s Kitchen, a local organization that prepares fresh, healthy meals for the homeless. The White House Kitchen garden also happens to be my favorite place to spend time on the White House grounds.
How did Michelle Obama’s work on nutrition and health relate to efforts of the former White House chef Sam Kass on food policy, specifically addressing food waste?
Sam has known the First Lady for a long time, and I think knowing her well, as well as knowing the issues that face our country, has enhanced his ability to affect change in a positive way and turn those goals into reality, be it food policy, food waste, or other important issues that impact us.
Can you tell us more about the strategies you employ to create a shift in popular perceptions of nutrition while also changing American nutrition policy? When is it more effective to be outwardly facing versus doing behind the scenes work with members of Congress to formulate better policy?
This is a great question and was a critical part of my job. It was a balancing act and often one addressed with great care. I think there’s always an important role for innovative and savvy marketing and communication strategies when it comes to disseminating difficult and complex information. This administration has taken on digital strategies effectively in many forms and it all really comes back to knowing who your audience is and using creative tactics to deliver information to the American people in a way that resonates (and pitching the First Lady on it, of course). For example, we won’t talk about nutrition policy to parents in the same way we talk about it to health advocates who work on these policies day in and day out. We also know that if Lebron James thinks eating an apple is cool and impacts his performance on and off the courts, kids will too. The same could be said about communicating important information about the Affordable Care Act or immigration.
The First Lady is truly our best asset in amplifying our message. What you see is what you get…she’s authentic and she’s passionate and she has a real talent for connecting with her audience. So if moving the needle on this work means dancing with a turnip, mom-dancing on Jimmy Fallon, or breaking it down with Ellen DeGeneres, she’s always up for it. If it means delivering a powerful speech to a room full of high-level stakeholders and press, she’s up for that too. That’s a power and influence that you just can’t replace.
"If moving the needle on this work means dancing with a turnip, mom-dancing on Jimmy Fallon, or breaking it down with Ellen DeGeneres, she’s always up for it. If it means delivering a powerful speech to a room full of high-level stakeholders and press, she’s up for that too."
We loved the Michelle Obama turnip video—she’s amazing. Getting to more of the policy side, In Politico’s, “The Great FLOTUS food fight,” Michelle Obama’s efforts are described as “a modern example of how a White House spouse can use her unelected platform to wage a genuine Washington policy fight.” Why is pushing for a healthier and a more inclusive food policy a fight?
That’s a great question, and I certainly don’t have all the answers. To an extent, many important issues somehow become controversial because change on any level takes time and resources. There are always going to be conflicting views and strong opinions. For Let’s Move! and the First Lady, it’s about changing the health of this country and doing everything in her power to make this possible.
"Consumers and voters are ultimately the ones who need to drive these changes."
There’s not actually a large political movement around food. There’s been very little, if any, mention of food policy in the campaigns of both front runners in this year’s election. This is something we’re making some progress on more at the grassroots and local level as we see the formation of local food policy councils and many other efforts that are incredibly promising. We’re even seeing other key influencers like chefs take a stand on this and utilize their platforms to push a lot of this work forward, but no one is actually voting on any of this right now, and that’s a real problem. We need people to care about this. Consumers and voters are ultimately the ones who need to drive these changes. We can’t expect them to care about these issues if they don’t know about these issues.
When it comes to potential “opponents”, how can private sector actors, who may be motivated to make unhealthy, addictive foods for profits, be crucial actors in reforming our food system? Michelle Obama seems to have been particularly good at bringing in the private sector to food reform.
We prioritized this a lot in our work, and I think that’s part of the transformation we’re seeing in the food industry-- is that consumers do drive business and we know that, at the end of the day, businesses need to make a profit and consumers drive these profits. What’s exciting is that purchasing behaviors and consumer demands are starting to shift—we’re slowly starting to get to a place where what’s good for consumers can also be good for business. I believe this really is possible. Consumers are increasingly looking for transparency, sustainability, and quality in their food. And they’re certainly looking for it to be easily accessible and affordable. This is also where a support for farmers and innovation around agriculture and supply chain comes into play.
I don’t think we can have a conversation anymore about reforming our food system without including the private sector. They’re the ones producing our food, processing our food and feeding us so they certainly play an important role in reforming our system. I’m thrilled about the changes we’ve been seeing and I recognize they’re not easy…bigger food companies are slowly seeing the need to make changes to their products, processes, and marketing, and smaller, newer food companies, social entrepreneurs and start-ups are forward-thinking and truly building brands and companies around a mission that aligns with good food, good health, and social impact. MISFIT could even be an example of this, taking on the critical problem of food waste in our country and building a business that aims to create a shared value. They’re providing nourishing, better-for-you products for consumers while tackling food waste. I think we’re seeing an increase in that across the board, and it’s exciting.
That’s interesting to see how the paradigm on food is shifting. Working at the intersection of the public and private sectors, food and health, social missions and strategic partnerships, how do you build relationships and drive impact?
We’re seeing more examples of innovative ways to solve social issues and really bring to bear the resources of private sector institutions with many of the social issues that the public sector is working on. The old-school term “corporate social responsibility” is becoming more mainstream, particularly in the food movement. It’s critical to seek out a win-win for both parties. The private sector can often bring innovation, technology, and additional resources to a lot of this work.
And companies that may not be embedding these sorts of missions within their core business are increasingly creating private-public partnerships or formal commitments that position the company to “do better”. Whether it’s around food waste, making it easier for families to cook, providing access to healthy prepared meals, ensuring sustainable and transparent food practices, we’re seeing it more and many of these efforts involve bridging the public and private sectors together. There’s an incredible opportunity to leverage technology, innovation, and additional resources in the private sector, in ways that support creating “better-for-you” brands.
What are some memorable or exciting moments from your time at Let’s move! or insights you gained?
This is always a tough one! I can honestly say that everyday serving the country and the First Lady was rewarding and exciting, and sometimes I would have to pinch myself when I looked around and remembered where I was. Working for the First Lady is incredibly personal. No two days were ever the same. Some days started in the garden, followed by executing an event with Elmo and Big Bird, briefing the First Lady on an important new initiative, and ending the day with a room full of CEOs. But at the end of the day, (whatever time that was), I knew that every part of my day involved working to push this work forward...something that I was deeply passionate about and committed to…and I had the First Lady of the United States to help me do this.
As for the exciting moments, there are certainly many. The first time I met the President was while I rushing to meet with the First Lady for the first time. The first time I bumped into Bo and Sunny was during my first visit to the East Wing, while I was waiting to meet with the First Lady’s Chief of Staff for an interview. I will never forget those moments.
I also remember the first time the First Lady delivered a Let’s Move! speech that I had worked on. There’s really nothing like hearing the First Lady read words that you so carefully crafted. No matter how many times you work on speeches, talking points, videos, it really never gets old.
Thinking about the biggest insights gained, one of the biggest insights was how incredibly in-demand the First Lady and Let’s Move! are and how small her teams are. The folks working behind the scenes are small and their hands are in absolutely everything the First Lady is working on. We get an unbelievable amount of requests and opportunities and we really have to weigh each one out carefully. We want to be sure that we use the First Lady’s time strategically in a way that is impactful and reaches everyone that we’re trying to reach. Her time is so valuable.
We can imagine it must have been such an interesting job and such a fascinating time to work at the White House. As the Obama administration comes to an end what are the lasting impacts of the Let’s Move! Initiative, policy-wise and culturally? Is there institutional capacity and momentum from the Let’s Move! Initiative?
Momentum, absolutely, momentum is strong. It is all of our jobs to keep this work going in different ways and policy-wise, the list is long. I don’t think there’s an administration or First Lady in history that’s really done more for our food system or the health of our nation’s kids than First Lady Michelle Obama. From reforming our school lunch environment to pushing for more transparency and change around food to education and support for nutrition assistance programs, and many others…she’s been a force behind it all.
I also think the First Lady and Let’s Move! has truly transformed the culture and conversation around food and health in our country. She is committed to this work for the long haul, well beyond her time in the White House. This is something she cares deeply about, and we are fortunate to have her voice and dedication to this work.
"I don’t think there’s an administration or First Lady in history that’s really done more for our food system or the health of our nation’s kids than First Lady Michelle Obama."
Because of a lot of this work, we now live in a country where the food our kids find in many schools, daycares and after-school programs will support their health and productivity. Big food companies are being driven by consumers, to be more transparent, new innovative food companies are building a brand around missions that address many of the issues in our food system, and investors and philanthropists are pursuing solutions that transform our food system. We have conversations about a “good food movement” and “better-for-you” brands. Technology is driving new innovations in the food space and entire conferences are being dedicated to reinventing our food system and looking for ways to invest in it from the “ground” up.
I think that the role that so many parts of our community and population are taking on and making a priority will really keep the momentum going and ensure that all of the hard work the First Lady and this Administration put in will not only not get reversed, but actually keep moving forward. We all need to keep pushing and keep being creative.
That’s so exciting. It says a lot about Michelle Obama’s commitment to food system reform and how important this role of “First Lady” or potentially “First Man” can be! Finally, can you tell us more about how you will continue to work on tackling childhood obesity, hunger and other reforms to the food system?
I think that those of us who have focused on this work for years see this time as a real turning point. A turning point where health, food and social impact are all intersecting. We’re on the cutting edge of really transforming our food system to make good, nutritious, and sustainably produced food accessible for all. Whether that’s through driving innovation and thought-leadership across the food industry, developing and executing sustainable food practices and policies, creating strategies that increase food access and education, reducing food waste, helping families cook more, there’s a real need for collaboration and innovation. My position at the White House as well as my prior career positioned me to gain unique perspective and deep relationships with some of the brightest minds working on this on a national level and, see first-hand the opportunities and needs within this work. I’ll continue to work across these areas, bridging these gaps in ways that utilize my platform, relationships, and expertise to move the needle forward.
"We’re on the cutting edge of really transforming our food system to make good, nutritious, and sustainably produced food accessible for all."
Finally, any personal or professional lessons you learned about yourself through your work while you were at the White House? What was the personal growth you experienced while you were there?
A lot. I was the first person to ever take on the role of Deputy Director of Let’s Move!—the position had never existed, so that, in and of itself is an incredible way to learn and grow. You dive in deep, and it’s kind of sink or swim…so you swim! I’ve always worked in jobs where you’re juggling many things. You learn very quickly how to have your hands in absolutely everything--how to manage and lead a high-profile initiative forward while first and foremost, supporting the First Lady, your platform, and all of the demands on her, day in and day out. When you know you have the First Lady of the United States behind you, someone who is working so hard for this, it really keeps you going during some of the toughest moments.
I think you grow tremendously in the time that you’re there. There’s certainly a lot of pressure associated with positions like these, but the impact and power that you have to make real change in the world is pretty amazing and having the First Lady as your boss is pretty great too. The need to be flexible and calm under pressure are important qualities—as plans and news are changing constantly. We might have an event planned, but if something big happens around the world or here in the United States, it often impacts our work because the First Lady or the President will be engaged, so we’re always managing our work, but there’s a need to know much more than that.
I never dreamed of working in the White House, let alone serving as part of the First Lady’s senior staff team and helping to lead her work on an issue I cared so much about. Professionally, it’s important to have a tentative plan, a roadmap, but be flexible enough to change that path when opportunity knocks at your door. I never could have imagined that work I was doing for many years would be one that the First Lady of the United States would take on. I feel pretty lucky for that. Working in this position gives you unbelievable opportunities and exposure and certainly new challenges. The same could be said for other jobs, but it’s really about how you navigate them and learn throughout your career.
There’s a lot of unique aspects of working in that role and there’s no way to come out not having grown professionally. This experience will stay with me for the rest of my life. It was and will always be an honor working for the Let’s Move! initiative. The First Lady's work on the issues of food, health, and wellness for ourselves and our children has truly transformed the national conversation and has engaged leaders from all sectors. Her innovative approach, authenticity, and passion to generate change on this issue has moved the dial more than many ever thought possible.
Is there any quote or piece of advice you would give to others along their journeys towards growth or work?
Yes and it’s something I think I about often and try to live in my own life. (Barbara Streisand said this first)… “Always stay true to yourself, people respond to authenticity.”
And, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter where you came from. Anything is possible when you work hard, believe in yourself, and surround yourself by good people. I moved to DC over a decade ago with a car full of stuff and a dream of finding the work I was passionate about. I worked three jobs in this city when I first moved here, just to make ends meet.
Lastly, find good mentors and keep in touch with them. And likewise, be a good mentor to others. Investing in someone is one of the greatest gifts you can give