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Reporter’s notebook: A Farm Girl’s Fateful Journey to the White House
More from my interview with PLEZi Nutrition’s Deb Eschmeyer
How does a Midwest dairy farmer’s daughter one day find herself at the right hand of the first lady of the United States? That’s not the first question I asked when I recently interviewed Deb Eschmeyer, former executive director of former First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” initiative and former senior White House policy adviser for nutrition.
I wanted to talk with Eschmeyer because I was interested in hearing about how things were going with PLEZi Nutrition, the food-conscious public benefit company that Michelle Obama co-founded and launched last May. Eschmeyer, post-White House, is back alongside the former first lady. This time, she is serving as chair of PLEZi Nutrition’s Kitchen Cabinet. But, there’s more to the story that ran in East Wing Magazine last week. Specifically, more to Eschmeyer’s story.
Back to my opening question. What exactly brought Eschmeyer to the White House? The answer was simpler than I'd expected — it was food. Healthy food, to be precise. But it was so much more than that. It was a lifetime in and around the production of food and then, in perhaps an ironic twist of fate, a missed opportunity in her 20s to embark on what was, at the time, her dream job of serving in the Peace Corps.
If only Eschmeyer knew then just how big she could dream.
I began our midsummer interview via Zoom by asking Eschmeyer how she came to care so much about food and nutrition. The answer began in her childhood in rural Ohio, where she grew up on a dairy farm.
“Agriculture was always part of my roots,” Eschmeyer says. “I didn't know there were things such as weekends, or even salaries growing up here.”
She recalls having no interest in getting into food until her early 20s, when she and her husband, a former college athlete and her high school sweetheart, quit their day jobs to join the Peace Corps to serve as agriculture volunteers in Ecuador. It was going to be a purpose-driven adventure. Their bags were packed. It was time to bid their families farewell.
“We were going to our going away party and instead we ended up in the emergency room.” — Deb Eschmeyer, chair of PLEZi Nutrition’s Kitchen Cabinet
“We were going to our going away party and instead we ended up in the emergency room,” Eschmeyer recalls of that day. Her husband had lost 16 pounds in two weeks. He was constantly thirsty. And after they measured his blood sugar, it was determined he was a late onset type one diabetic.
The Peace Corps plans? Shelved indefinitely.
“I suddenly became the food police.” — Eschmeyer
Instead, the sharp turn Eschmeyer’s life took alongside her husband drew her, she says, into an intense journey. Once, food was joy. Then, food became scary. Eschmeyer, also a registered dietician, would routinely poke his finger and take his blood sugar. She describes being obsessed with learning everything she could about her husband’s health condition, down to how many green beans he could eat in a serving. “I suddenly became the food police,” she recalls.
At this point in the interview, it all crystalized for me. I had wondered from where the motivation for her work with Michelle Obama was born. Then, I understood.
Eventually, Eshmeyer’s focus shifted to farm policy. She worked for the National Organic Farm Coalition followed by focusing on school lunches while working at National Farm School Network. She went on to co-found the national nonprofit FoodCorps and started an organic fruit and vegetable farm in New Knoxville, Ohio. At one point, Eschmeyer was traveling to Washington, D.C. once a month, meeting with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Office of Management and Budget run through the White House.
“Everyone got to know me,” she says.
Then in December 2014, Sam Kass, who served as then President Barack Obama’s senior policy adviser for nutrition policy and executive director for the “Let’s Move!” campaign, stepped down from his White House position. A month later, Eschmeyer was tapped for the job. “And the rest is history,” she says.
I paused the interview again, bringing her back to, perhaps, the catalyst of her path to the White House — the devastating news about her husband’s health condition, forcing her to reverse course in her young life. Eschmeyer shares how the memory is etched in her mind:
“It was very impactful because it was three days prior to departure [for the Peace Corps]. It's completely locked in my brain, this image. You basically have 80 pounds that you bring with you. We had two backpacks. We measured out exactly how much fit in. We had them laying out in the bedroom,” she says. “And we had no health insurance because we just quit our jobs.”
“It was just like you had this whole life before, right? It was one of those moments where it just completely, completely floored us,” she continues. “It drove me to this path of food and health and nutrition.”
“It drove me to this path of food and health and nutrition.” — Eschmeyer
Together, they've learned to adjust to the type of food her husband needs. But what stands out about my conversation with Eschmeyer is her determination to keep getting the message out about healthy eating and her commitment to public service.
“It is an absolute gift being able to serve the American public,” she says, adding it was one of the reasons why she founded FoodCorps and also what drew her to Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” initiative. Particularly, she points to her policy work while in the White House including improving school food guidelines and helping improve the Nutrition Facts Label. Upon reflection, her excitement stemmed from trying to improve food through possible solutions such as exploring ways to ban trans fats across the board.
“It is an immense amount of pressure. And at the same time, it's a wonderful and beautiful thing,” she says. “And what was so beautiful about it is that it was complex.”
While Eschmeyer continues to chart a new course in the private sector alongside Michelle Obama, her mission of advocating for healthy eating is the same. With excitement bubbling up in her voice, Eschmeyer lays out what she hopes to accomplish with PLEZi.
“We know that there's an issue and when it comes to how much added sugar kids are consuming. We have to try, right? We have to try to break through and keep this conversation around public health going,” Eschmeyer says. “Mrs. Obama has always said, ‘I'm not leaving this issue’.”
And by the sound of it, neither is Eschmeyer any time soon.