Michelle Obama Hopes First Lady's Garden Yields Bountiful Lessons

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 17, 2009

They picked snap peas. They washed huge heads of lettuce. They decorated cupcakes with raspberries and blueberries. And when the 36 fifth-graders from Bancroft Elementary sat down at a long picnic table, Michelle Obama gave them a summer homework assignment.

"This gorgeous, bountiful garden has given us a chance to not just have some fun -- and we've had a lot of it -- but to shed some light on the important food and nutrition issues that we need to address as a nation," she told them yesterday from a lectern in the First Lady's Garden. "I want you to continue to be my little ambassadors in your own home and your own communities."

The 14-minute speech was a marked change in tone from the series of fun-filled photo ops on the White House South Lawn, all of which have felt like school field trips with one very famous chaperone. The first lady talked about the importance of tackling obesity and the ways to do it: by improving access to fresh produce in low-income communities, offering more nutritious food in school breakfast and lunch programs, and overhauling how American families eat.

Such issues have long been on the wish list of food advocates and chefs, but in one growing season, Obama cast her campaign for homegrown food as a sensible strategy for healthful eating. "I've learned that if it's fresh and grown locally, it's probably going to taste better. That's how I've been able to help my children eat different things," she told the students. "By making this small change in our family's diet and adding more fresh produce, Barack, the girls, me, we all started to notice that we felt much better and have more energy. And I wanted to share this little piece of experience with the rest of the nation."

Obama also explicitly linked healthful eating to two major legislative initiatives: the reauthorization of child nutrition programs, which fund school breakfast and lunch programs, and health-care reform. American eating habits, she noted, have changed dramatically since she was growing up -- "and I don't think that was that long ago."

During her childhood, she said, fast food was a treat, desserts were reserved for special occasions, and all the kids in the neighborhood went home to have dinner with their families. Since then, childhood obesity rates have skyrocketed: Nearly one-third of children in the United States are overweight or obese, and diet-related health issues cost $120 billion annually. "Government has a role to play," Obama said. "We need to make sure we offer [students] the healthiest meals possible to make sure we give these kids a good start to their day and their future."

Bancroft students heard the message loud and clear. On their third visit to the garden from their Mount Pleasant school, the pupils, dressed in jeans and yellow T-shirts, divided into groups to pick, wash and weigh heads of lettuce and snap peas, which Assistant White House Chef Sam Kass said had grown quickly due to the heavy spring rains. (Students picked 73 pounds of lettuce and 12 pounds of peas, according to a representative.) After the harvest, a group of students joined Kass in the White House kitchen to bread chicken for baking, shell peas and prepare brown rice.

"My mother is very happy to see me choosing to eat more fresh vegetables now that I have heard Mrs. Obama and the White House cooks say how important they are," student Tammy Nguyen wrote in an essay to the first lady. "I told my mom about the trip and she sees the difference in my habits."

Still, at least some of the students needed a gentle hint about the benefits of eating well. As they piled food on their plates, Kass reminded them: "Everyone needs to eat a little salad if they want to have a cupcake."

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