Room but not board.
That’s the deal we make with presidents. They live rent free in the White House but meals run them extra.
If food is served at a state function, the government picks up the tab; when it comes to family meals, they’re on their own.
Groceries are delivered from various Secret Service-approved commercial suppliers, and they’re randomly rotated for added security. Household staff members fill in the basics with runs to butcher shops, supermarkets, and farmers markets. At the end of each month, the bills are tallied and submitted to Mr. and Mrs. Obama. Personal care items like toothpaste, shaving cream, and Tylenol are on the tab, plus the cost of snacks for Air Force One.
The Obamas also pay the salary of the chef who prepares the First Family’s meals.
Past First Families all opted to pay just for the groceries and have their family meals prepared by the White House kitchen staff—an executive chef, executive pastry chef, and four sous-chefs, paid for with taxpayer dollars. The Obamas chose to bring in a personal chef, Sam Kass, who works in a small private kitchen on the residence level of the White House. Kass has been cooking for the Obamas since their Chicago days and knows their likes and dislikes so well that he rarely consults with them on menu planning. He’s also notoriously tight-lipped about their eating habits saying little more than “we have very balanced meals,” and that the family “walks the walk” with Michelle Obama’s healthful food initiative for the country.
Still, a few details have leaked out about the Obama family dinner hour.
We know that the president sits down at 6:30 to eat with the family nearly every night, a practice that is much criticized for his perceived neglect of the traditional schmoozing time for Washington’s power players. Meals begin with a quick blessing and a clink of their glasses. The family typically plays a round of rose and thorn—going around the table, each member shares something positive from their day (the rose) and also something difficult or unpleasant (the thorn). Meal-time is soda-free, peanut-free (Malia’s allergic), vegetables are plentiful, they eat brown rice instead of white, and dessert is served just a few times a week. The president detests beets and loves double-crusted fruit pies.
Dinners out are rare, in part because they turn into a major production.
A Secret Service detail conducts an advance walk-through of the restaurant, scoping out the Obamas’ points of entry and exit, and seating. Metal detecting wand-wielding agents position themselves at the front door, and a dozen or so more take up positions inside and out, including a multi-talented chef-agent who supervises kitchen security. The Obamas arrive by motorcade with leading and trailing police motorcycle and cruiser escorts. There’s an ambulance, a couple of communications vans, and some black Chevy Suburbans carrying still more Secret Service agents behind tinted glass. Somewhere in there are multiple armored limousines, one of which holds the First Family.
Especially when there’s a brigade of White House cooks, an organic garden, the remnants of Thomas Jefferson’s wine cellar, and never a dish to wash.
We’ll probably never know what’s on the Obamas’ shopping list.
An annual report is submitted to Congress that documents official, tax-supported White House expenses. But the First Family’s personal expenses, paid for out of their own pockets, are their own business.