Room But Not Board: Presidents have always paid for White House groceries

Housing’s included, food will run you extra.
That’s the deal we make with presidents when they move into the White House.
The government picks up the tab for state functions, but when it comes to family meals, they’re on their own.

Groceries are delivered from various Secret Service-approved commercial suppliers, and household staff members fill in the basics with runs to butcher shops, supermarkets, and farmers markets, with a varied rotation for added security. Toothpaste, shaving cream, Tylenol—they’re added to the tab too. At the end of each month, the bills are tallied and submitted to Mr. and Mrs. Obama.

Past first families have opted to purchase groceries but to 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 Sam Kass as their personal chef, and pay his salary themselves. Kass has been cooking for the Obamas since their Chicago days, and by now he 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, there’s plenty we do know 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, 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 double-crusted fruit pie is a particular favorite.

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.

Why bother?
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. Official White House expenses are tax-supported, and the president is required to submit an annual report to Congress. Any staffing beyond the normal White House operations (like Chef Kass), and personal family expenses like groceries, toiletries, and dry cleaning, are paid out-of-pocket. No public funds, no reporting requirement.


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Is it appropriate conversation for the dinner table? Then it should be fine.

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