2015 Leadership Award Honoree Sam Kass

Former Senior Policy Advisor on Nutrition and Chef, The White House; Senior Food Analyst, NBC News

Few people travel the world with the same items that a young and itinerant Sam Kass carried in his backpack. The “giant bag” that he toted through Southeast Asia, South America, and many places in between was “three-quarters filled with books on food policy,” he says. “I remember wondering what the hell I was doing, but later I found out.”

After his trips far afield, Kass, who fell in love with cooking during his college years and trained as an apprentice in Vienna, returned to his hometown of Chicago. He soon found himself working as a personal chef for a couple who would help put his self-proclaimed obsession with public food policy on a high-trajectory career path: senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle.

Conversations with the Obamas and their young daughters about what they were eating soon developed into more complex discussions about “what was going on in the country with regard to food and what the problems were,” Kass recalls. “We started dreaming about what we could do together if Barack was ever elected.”

Those dreams, which largely focused on improving childhood and family health, became tangible objectives when Barack Obama and his family relocated to the White House, with Kass in tow. He continued to serve as the First Family’s personal chef and, with the First Lady, planted a large fruit and vegetable garden on the White House grounds that attracted significant media attention. He was named an inaugural member of American Chef Corps, a U.S. State Department–based partnership with the James Beard Foundation dedicated to enacting diplomacy through culinary initiatives; appointed executive director of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign, which targets childhood obesity; and named the first-ever senior policy advisor for nutrition to the President. His contributions to policy change ran the gamut, from the revamping of nutrition labels to bans on the use of trans fat in processed foods.

“Sam channeled the hope and vision of the President and First Lady with uncompromising commitment, relentless tenacity, and legendary charm,” says 2011 Leadership Award honoree Debra Eschemeyer. “There are few who know the depth and breadth of food policy like Sam, and there are fewer who have fought harder for the health of our nation. All that and the man can cook.”

While Kass left Washington at the end of 2014 to relocate to New York, the influence of his work on public food policy is still widely recognized. “Sam leaves an extraordinary legacy of progress, including healthier food options in grocery store aisles, more nutritious school lunches, and new efforts that have improved how healthy food is marketed to our kids,” said First Lady Michelle Obama upon Kass’s departure from the White House.

Kass isn’t resting on the laurels of his successes in the nation’s capital: he was recently appointed senior food analyst for NBC News and does private consulting. “I am really trying to be a catalyst for change at the intersection of health and food sustainability,” he says. “I want to continue to have as big an impact as I possibly can through every school and avenue.”

—Emily Carrus