By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 21, 2009
With the help of local elementary school students, Michelle Obama broke ground for a White House fruit and vegetable garden and initiated a public campaign to help Americans better understand where their food comes from.
On the sunny but chilly first day of spring, Obama joined about 25 fifth-graders from Bancroft Elementary on the South Lawn at three picnic tables set with baskets of apples and thermoses of hot cider. The children, who also work in a garden at school, were given shovels, pitchforks and wheelbarrows to help prepare the garden, where as many as 55 fruits and vegetables will be grown year-round for use in the White House kitchen. The students will be invited back to the White House to plant seedlings, then again to harvest and learn how to cook with the fresh produce.
"I've been able to have my kids eat so many different things that they would have never touched if we bought it at a store," Obama said before picking up a shovel and digging in. "Because they met the farmer that grew it or they saw how it was grown, they were curious about it and they tried it. And usually they liked it, and they'd eat more and more of it."
The Mount Pleasant students appeared to enjoy raking and piling grass in wheelbarrows, though at least one girl seemed far more interested in taking pictures of the first lady with a camera phone than actually gardening. After about 15 minutes of work, the children sat down at the picnic tables for apples, cider and sugar cookies made in the shape of shovels by White House pastry chef Bill Yosses.
"Have fruits and vegetables as much as you can, all right? At every meal. What do you think?" Obama asked students, who answered with nervous laughter. "Let's hear it for vegetables! Yay! Let's hear it for fruits! Yeah!" There was a pause. "Did I hear a boo?" she said, seamlessly morphing into the mom in chief. "Do you want me to take your cookie shovel away from you?"
Chefs and farmers have long yearned for a garden on the White House lawn, and they have found a receptive audience in the first lady. Since the inauguration, she has emerged as a vocal proponent of healthful eating. One of her early official appearances was at the Department of Agriculture, where she told staff she was a "big believer" in community gardens. Last month, she invited local culinary students to the White House kitchen, where she talked about her own challenges trying to persuade her children to eat vegetables. No matter what you do, she said, "sometimes kids are like, 'It's green!' "
The 1,100-square-foot garden, the first of its kind since Eleanor Roosevelt planted a victory garden during World War II, will grow dozens of vegetables, berries and herbs. The collection of crops, a wish list from White House kitchen staff, will include lettuces, squash, fennel, rhubarb, cucumbers and sweet and hot peppers. White House chefs will use the produce to prepare meals for the family and for official functions, and some of the produce will be donated to Miriam's Kitchen, a soup kitchen near the White House. There will also be a beehive near the garden.
Dale Haney, the White House grounds superintendent, and Sam Kass, the assistant White House chef who previously worked as a personal chef for the Obama family in Chicago, will oversee the garden, which is visible to passersby on the street. The rest of the White House kitchen staff, executive staffers and the first family also are expected to help.
"This sends a message that food is really important," Kass said. "Taking a real look at what we're eating is critical, particularly in the health crisis that we're in. We have to take a bigger role in our lives. And this is a first step along that road."