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Michelle Obama is teaching us to take food seriously – by being playful

Producing and starring in Waffles + Mochi on Netflix, Michelle Obama has served up a show reminding us that food is about history, culture and identity as much as diet

In an alternate reality, seeking a change of pace after leaving the White House, Michelle Obama took over as manager at a downtown supermarket.

That’s the premise of Waffles + Mochi, the latest food-based show served up by Netflix and the makers of Chef’s Table and Salt Fat Acid Heat – shows that generate as much acclaim as they do mouth-watering from global audiences.

Waffles + Mochi is aimed at kids, not to pulverise them with messages about healthy eating, but to emphasise how food educates us about our history, our identity and culture – whether our own or another country’s – as well as tasting good.

“I only wish Waffles + Mochi had been around when my daughters were growing up,” says the First Lady-turned-kids TV host, “because it’s the kind of programme that’s fun to watch together as a family and gives parents the peace of mind to know that their little ones are learning something too.

“We know that everybody loves good food and a good story,” she continues. “And that’s exactly what our curious and adventurous heroes provide, whether they’re discovering the possibilities of potatoes, the world of pickling, or the art of cleaning up a cracked egg.”

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Each episode focuses on a core food item – tomato, salt, rice – as culinary crusaders Waffles (her dad is a frozen waffle, her mum a yeti) and Mochi (his lineage is a key plot point of an episode so I won’t spoil it) travel the world and beyond. They sift salt in Peru, plant potatoes on Mars and dance with a celebrity chef every time a blender gets switched on.

The deliciously irreverent and determinedly low-tech show plays like Sesame Street meets Flight of the Conchords and there are guest stars aplenty. Hardly surprising, who would reject a call coming from Michelle Obama and her husband, who serve as executive producers?

The animated tomato singing a Sia-esque ballad about being confused over whether she’s a fruit or a vegetable? It is actually Sia singing. When the upside-down world of the mushroom needs investigating, up pops Stranger Things star Gaten Matarazzo.

But the show also tackles serious issues more thoughtfully than many other series. When Waffles and Mochi visit food historian Michael W Twitty in Georgia he tells them how popular rice dishes have their roots in slavery.

During the Obama presidency, Michelle led the Let’s Move! campaign to reduce childhood obesity in the US. “In many ways, Waffles + Mochi is an extension of my work to support children’s health as First Lady,” she says.

Obama has also announced an initiative driven by the show that aims to feed one million families in need, which is a vital intervention.

In the last year, the number of Americans experiencing food insecurity has increased from 35 million to 45 million. Meanwhile in the UK, an estimated 8.7 per cent of the population are affected, with two million people forced to use a foodbank in 2019-20.

Ensuring people are not going hungry is the biggest issue, but Waffles + Mochi is a tasty reminder of how we learn about ourselves and others through food.

So The Big Issue caught up with the star of the show. No, not Michelle Obama, but Waffles on a video call, accompanied by Mochi, who meeps and squeaks in agreement or disagreement.

Mrs O, as they call her, seems to be a great boss. “She’s lovely, she’s just got a heart of gold.” She did take a chance on hiring the pair after all: “I think that speaks to her character,” Waffles notes.

They learn a lot about food in the show, but what did they learn about themselves?

“Oh, that’s a great question,” Waffles says. “Heh Mochi, what did you learn?”

Mochi responds, Waffles translates: “You learned that you were part rice and part ice cream!”

I think I might be part ice cream too given how much of it I have been eating during lockdown. “I mean, your heads pretty much look the same,” Waffles kindly points out. She then continues: “Sometimes we don’t know all the things about ourselves, but there are people in our lives that can help us to find who we are and unlock our true potential.

“Like ingredients. Because a tomato is just a tomato until you try to cook it a bunch of different ways.”

OK, so by now we have left reality far behind. I’m talking to a puppet that stacks shelves for Michelle Obama. BUT when you consider the lessons and opportunities lost by those impacted by food poverty – or just those of us who lent too heavily on takeaways over the last year… Many of us are going to be just tomatoes if we don’t shake up the way we approach food.

Waffles + Mochi is on Netflix

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