On August 4, two White House lawyers contacted Dr. Neal Barnard, president of the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine ( PCRM ) and, he says, asked him to take down 14 posters his organization posted at Washington's Union Station.
The ads feature 8-year-old Jasmine Messiah of Miami-Dade public schools thinking: "President Obama's daughters get healthy school lunches. Why don't I?"
"What are you talking about, 'Take down these ads?!'" Barnard says he thought at the time. He consulted a first amendment attorney who said the White House has no leg to stand on.
"They're good people," Barnard said of White House associate counsel Karen Dunn and deputy associate Counsel Ian Bassin, who called him and asked his group to take down the ads because they mention the Obama daughters, as first reported by the Washington Post . "It's standard operating procedure for handlers at the White House" to call whenever the Obama daughters are mentioned, Barnard said. "They want to be overprotective."
But Barnard suggests that President Obama would support his group's mission behind the ads: to encourage Congress to mandate in the Child Nutrition Act that public school cafeteria's offer a vegetarian non-dairy option with lower fat content.
"Every meal right now is really meaty and cheesy," he says. Offering healthy alternatives fits right in with the President's health care reform push, and the emphasis on preventive care. "If we can bail out banks and offer cash for clunkers, certainly we can take steps to ensure our kids have options to high cholersterol meals," he said.
"The contrast is not with the daughters," Barnard says of the controversial poster, pointing out that Sasha and Malia's names and pictures are not in the ad. "The contrast is with the school the president's daughters are able to patronize. Sidwell Friends is able to offer health nutritious meal options." Veggie burgers are offered alongside hamburgers, vegetarian chili is served next to meat chili with higher cholesterol, he says.
"Go a mile away to any school in the district" and what options are there to a bologna-and-cheese sandwich? he asks. "What's left? Nothing. Nothing at all."
Jasmine Messiah first came to Barnard's attention at an event on Capitol Hill which she attended with her mother, Sarah Messiah, a scientist at the University of Miami. She asked to speak at the event about the lack of nutritious options available to her at her Florida public school.
Messiah has since written a letter to the First Tweens, writing, "I’m glad that your school, Sidwell Friends, already has lots of healthy options in the cafeteria, including vegetarian chili and roasted vegetable pizza...The problem is that most students eat unhealthy foods, like hot dogs, pepperoni pizza, ham sandwiches and cheeseburgers, every day at school. A lot of schools, including mine, don’t offer enough healthy fruits, vegetables and vegetarian meals.”
Barnard, who specializes in internal medicine at George Washington University Hospital as well as conducting medical research for PCRM, says that "right now one in six children is obese -- in some areas it's one in four." And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three children born since 2000 will develop diabetes.
Barnard says he has no knowledge that President or First Lady Michelle Obama object to the ads. Rather, he says, it's "White House handlers" being vigilant ever since J. Crew "turned the kids into catwalk models" earlier this year. Ever since, the "handler get nervous every time there's a reference to the presence of children in the White House."
"I don’t want to suggest the President would take Jasmine out for a beer," he says. "I mean, she's only eight years old."