From Chicago to Vienna to Washington, D.C. and beyond, Sam’s worked all over the world and worn many different hats along the way. A curiosity for cooking led him to starting his own personal chef business. Later he became the Executive Director of the “Let’s Move!” campaign, a national public awareness effort to improve children’s health, as well as the White House Policy Advisor for Nutrition under the Obama administration. Currently, he’s a partner in Acre Venture Partners, which invests in startups that use climate- and food-based solutions to solve the world’s problems, and a co-founder of Spring, a company working to transform agriculture and food products for the better.
Sam Kass speaking to students at EF’s 2022 Global Leadership Summit on how he’s harnessed his lifelong passion for nutrition and shaped it into a career in global advocacy.
Because of Sam’s clear dedication to health and wellness, we were honored to have him present at our 2022 Global Leadership Summit in Berlin, Germany that focused around—guessed it—health and wellness. While there, we caught up with him to learn more about the impact travel’s had on his life, how food can change the world, and what teachers and students can do at home to promote healthy and sustainable living.
I’ve always loved food. I come from a family who ate a homecooked meal together every night, which was a good foundation. I got a job at a restaurant in Chicago in college, but never really considered pursuing cooking as a profession.
In one particular restaurant I worked in, the sous chef—who was the best chef I’ve worked with to this day—told me, “If a guest walks out of this restaurant and drops dead outside, that’s not my problem. The guest is asking us to make something that tastes good, not what’s good for them.” From there I started asking questions like, “What are the implications of what I’m cooking, and how does my food affect who’s eating it?”
I came to realize that food is at the center of so many of the issues we’re grappling with as a society, and that it holds huge potential as a solve for these big challenges. The food system is one of the biggest drivers of climate change and environmental degradation, and is second in greenhouse gas emissions. 70% of the world’s water goes into agriculture, and food is the number-one cause of preventable death and disease in the U.S. Once I learned that, it was hard to turn a blind eye.
Sam Kass seated next to fellow presenter Blake Leeper.
I was out in the world cooking for about five years, and then I came back to Chicago. I grew up in the same neighborhood as the Obamas, so I reconnected with them to cook part-time in their home after Barack announced his presidential run. By that point, I was already focused on issues around policy, health, and sustainability, so I worked with Michelle on a dream for what we wanted to do if he got elected.
When we made it to the White House, the first thing we did was plant a garden and use it as a way to take the temperature of the country to see if the issue resonated. The answer was decidedly yes, and it grew from there. We focused on early childhood nutrition, schools, access to healthy and affordable food, marketing and information, and physical activity. Each year, I focused on one of those pillars.
School nutrition is the most important program that ensures that children are getting their basic nutritional needs met, but those standards hadn’t been updated in 30 years at the time. When you realize that the only meals some kids were eating were school lunches, you can’t even think about asking them to learn. So when we improved the nutritional standards in schools, we saw test scores and attendance go up and behavior challenges go down.
First, have the conversation. I think being honest and open about your personal journey with health is important. The next step is actually living it—it’s hard when students see adults preach about wellness but aren’t practicing it. Then try to bring this to life in the classroom or through experiences that are relevant. Whether it’s teaching them how to cook something, going to a farmer’s market, or visiting a grocery store, making it real and giving students agency in their own lives is the best thing educators can do.
When I had one semester left at the University of Chicago, I was desperate to see the world. I applied to three study abroad programs—Bombay, Rome, and Vienna—and got waitlisted. I stormed into the study abroad office and said “You have to let me go. I don’t care what you do, but I will make the absolute most of it.”
So they sent me to Vienna! When I got there, I told the head of the program that I was interested in food and thought I could manage a pastry shop once a week. It turned out that her husband’s uncle’s friend-from-college’s son rode bikes with a sous chef in the best restaurant in the city. She said he’d meet me the next day if I was interested.
It was a very fancy restaurant, and I had no idea what I was doing. But I loved the controlled chaos of the kitchen—the energy, the intensity, the performance of it all. The sous chef was this big dude, funny but also very tough. He called me over and put a scallop on a very thin pastry spatula and said, “Carry that over to the chef on the other side of the kitchen.” When I did so, the cook gave me the strangest look, but the sous chef said, “You’re welcome back in my kitchen any time.” Later on, he told me he was testing whether or not I had a steady hand and if I could deal with pressure. If I stayed calm in high-pressure moments, he knew he could teach me anything. So I started going back every day until the government sent me back to the United States because I overstayed what was allowed with my student visa.
Don’t do anything you can do at home. The reason you’re traveling is to try something new. Ask locals where their favorite places to eat are. Go to restaurants where everyone’s speaking the native language and the menu isn’t translated into English.
The world’s a big, beautiful place. Travel made my whole life. It’s the time when you learn the most about yourself and what it means to be human. It’s such a unique way to gain perspective on your life and the world—there’s nothing I love more than traveling. All kinds of amazing things happen just by showing up and taking a chance. And the most beautiful part is that the combination of all these small stories you gather along the way become your life.
Everything I do now is focused on climate change, human health, and food systems, and I’m trying to find ways to make sure there are healthy options for people everywhere. But I think climate change is really the issue of our generation, and should always be a focus of your work in some way. Addressing it back home is important, like speaking with a politician or teacher. We need more leaders, more solutions, and more pressure on current leaders to do a better job, and I think every student should understand how climate change affects their future.
When students attend an EF Global Leadership Summit, they see international change come to life through stories from industry disrupters like Sam Kass, and leave the weekend ready to make a difference in their own communities. Want to feel that power firsthand?