New Let’s Move Executive Director is a ‘Food Justice’ Activist

Debra Eschmeyer wants ‘transformation of the current food system’

January 8, 2015

First Lady Michelle Obama named the new Executive Director of Let’s Move on Thursday, Debra Eschmeyer, a self-described "food justice" activist who believes that all aspects of food production and consumption should be "shared fairly."

Eschmeyer, who grew up on a dairy farm in Ohio and is now an organic vegetable farmer, previously campaigned for "school lunch reform" and has been involved in anti-obesity and school gardening initiatives.

Eschmeyer was asked in an interview in May 2011 what her definition of "food justice" is.

"I was an editor of ‘Food Justice’ (the new book by Robert Gottlieb and Anupama Joshi) so I spent several years thinking about the definition," she said. "Food justice seeks to ensure that the benefits and risks of where, what, and how food is grown, produced, transported, distributed, accessed, and eaten are shared fairly."

"It represents a transformation of the current food system, including but not limited to eliminating disparities and inequities," Eschmeyer added.

Food Justice, published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), argues that the food system needs to be "transformed" because of too many fast food restaurants and "food deserts."

"In today’s food system, farm workers face difficult and hazardous conditions, low-income neighborhoods lack supermarkets but abound in fast-food restaurants and liquor stores, food products emphasize convenience rather than wholesomeness, and the international reach of American fast-food franchises has been a major contributor to an epidemic of ‘globesity,’" a description of the book states. "To combat these inequities and excesses, a movement for food justice has emerged in recent years seeking to transform the food system from seed to table."

Eschmeyer said in another interview in July 2010 she is an avid reader of "Obama FoodoRama," the "blog of record about White House food initiatives" that was saddened when the First Lady’s garden was left to the squirrels during the government shutdown. The blog is no longer available to the public but for "invited readers" only. Eschmeyer is also a fan of "The Progressive Farmer."

Eschmeyer said during the interview she focuses on everything from "food policy, Farm to School, school gardens, school food, rural sociology, obesity, dairy policy, commodity policy, food justice … basically from seed to stomach. The whole gamut."

She also said she is not ideological.

"I like to make sure I’m looking at the right and the left so that I don’t silo myself," Eshmeyer said. "For example, I listen to Rush Limbaugh and Rachel Maddow. It doesn’t matter if you’re wearing a Sarah Palin 2012 t-shirt or that you’re an Obama devotee, everyone should get behind Farm to School and improving school lunch and the overall food system."

Eschmeyer co-founded FoodCorps, a non-profit anti-obesity campaign that teaches kids about healthy eating. The group starts Farm to School programs in school districts throughout the country.

"The lunchroom provides an opportunity for a classroom without racial and economic class barriers to overcome the injustice of poverty and food insecurity," Eschmeyer said when explaining the goals of the organization. "I want FoodCorps to be in every state in 10 years. And that people see it as a green job, a way to work in community."

Eschmeyer also has environmental concerns, making her appointment consistent with other government officials in charge of food policy.

Called a "tour de force in the good food movement," Eschmeyer was influenced by Silent Spring, the controversial environmentalist book by Rachel Carson responsible for banning DDT.

Silent Spring, along with other books including Fat Land, made Eschmeyer combine her focus to "culture, health, environment, agriculture, and policy," she said.

Eschmeyer is replacing former White House chef Sam Kass, who announced his departure last month. Mrs. Obama praised Eschmeyer in announcing her new role at Let’s Move.

"For more than a decade, Deb has been leading the way in teaching kids about the importance of healthy eating," she said in a statement.  "From classrooms and gardens to kitchens and farms, Deb has made learning about nutrition fun and accessible for kids across the country."

Eschmeyer will also be a "Senior Policy Adviser for Nutrition Policy," able to "advise on food and nutrition issues beyond Let’s Move."

Eschmeyer once was critical of her new boss, penning an open letter to Mrs. Obama in 2009 arguing that all school kids should be able to eat as well as Sasha and Malia do.

"Sasha and Malia are fortunate to be eating nutritious local, organic lunches at Sidwells Friends School," Eschmeyer wrote. "This is what your girls ate at lunch on Tuesday, February 10th: Organic Vegetarian Chili, Carrot Apple Soup, Roasted Local Beet Salad, Salad du Jour, All Natural Beef Chili, Brown Rice, Steamed Zucchini and Grapefruit Slices."

"The above shows the solution can be delicious," she said. "How wonderful that you and the president can provide local, fresh and healthy foods for the first daughters, but what about kids in the rest of the country?"

Mrs. Obama heeded the call with the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, though her reforms have not exactly turned out to be very popular.