First lady's healthy kids director knows toll of poor diet

Debra "Deb" Eschmeyer was jobless and near penniless but excited about heading to Ecuador with her husband as Peace Corps volunteers. Then everything changed.

Jeff, the high school sweetheart she had recently married, was diagnosed in February 2004 with diabetes, a lifelong and potentially debilitating illness.

After getting over the shock, Eschmeyer realized that, while it was too late to stop her husband from getting the disease, other people could be helped by cleaning up their diets.

The Ohio native started a produce farm in her hometown of New Knoxville that offers fresh fruits and vegetables to about 100 families a week through a community-supported agriculture program. She later co-founded an organization that sends volunteers into underserved schools to plant gardens and overhaul school lunches.

Seven months ago, Eschmeyer's path led her to the White House. She's the senior policy adviser for nutrition policy and, perhaps more important, the newest executive director of Michelle Obama's five-year-old initiative to reduce childhood obesity.


A lifelong child nutrition advocate, Eschmeyer says: "I'm used to getting things done."

On her to-do list: protecting a federal law that introduced healthier foods in schools.

She'll also help with the roll-out of an updated "nutrition facts" label on packaged foods and prepare for the post-presidency phase of "Let's Move," the first lady's anti-obesity initiative.

Congress has already rolled back some of the administration's attempts to make school foods healthier. A law governing child nutrition is up for renewal this year, and the healthier school foods are expected to come under stronger attack now that Congress is completely controlled by Republicans, many of whom say the new rules go too far.

The School Nutrition Association, an industry-backed group that represents school cafeteria workers, has fought the standards. The association says it favors kids eating healthier but contends that many school districts are losing money because students aren't buying the new lunches.

Mrs. Obama says 95 percent of schools are meeting the science-based requirements.

"There's not a politician that's against healthy kids," Eschmeyer told The Associated Press. "We're all in the same boat when it comes to that."


Something else Eschmeyer has gotten done? Releasing video of the first lady working out.

The idea had been discussed at length, but the timing never seemed right. Then Eschmeyer rolled in with the program's fifth anniversary and "was able to get everybody on board," said a former top aide to Mrs. Obama who declined to be named discussing internal White House deliberations.

In the video, Mrs. Obama jumps rope and does abdominal crunches with a weighted ball and squat jumps with a bench. She also chest presses 35-pound dumbbells and kick boxes.


A 2002 graduate of Xavier University with degrees in international affairs and marketing, Eschmeyer is 35 and thin, with face-framing, dark brown shoulder-length hair and a resemblance to actress Bellamy Young, who plays first lady Mellie Grant on the ABC television hit "Scandal."

At the real White House, Eschmeyer replaced Sam Kass, who arrived with the Obamas in 2009, initially as the family chef, then adding the senior policy adviser and executive director titles Eschmeyer currently holds. She earns an annual salary of $115,000 and does not cook for the Obamas.

Eschmeyer does like to take her three-person team out for "gym and dins" - a new workout routine followed by a healthy dinner.

Marion Nestle, a food expert and New York University nutrition professor, said Eschmeyer's appointment was "brilliant." Nestle said FoodCorps, the school-based program Eschmeyer co-founded with financial support from the federal AmeriCorps national service program, has been "astonishingly successful."

"To create it, she had to have extraordinary social and political skills, all of which will come in handy in the White House," Nestle said in an email. "She knows what's important and has a good idea of how to get it, and it doesn't hurt that she's utterly charming.

"If anyone can explain to Congress why the goals of `Let's Move' matter, and why the campaign's very real gains must be protected, she can."


Eschmeyer is also pondering the post-White House future of "Let's Move."

She and the first lady have been reviewing the program's accomplishments with an eye on "making sure that we're not going to lose momentum. We're going to find a way that it sticks," Eschmeyer said at a forum earlier this year.

"This is something that she's committed to for the long haul," she said of Mrs. Obama's post-White House endeavors.

The Partnership for a Healthier America, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that supports the first lady's initiative, will also continue its work with the food industry on reformulating products.