Mrs. Obama, how did your garden grow?

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 30, 2009

Rarely has a giant sweet potato, a muddy knee and a stubbornly rooted fennel plant caused such a stir. But when first lady Michelle Obama led groups of fifth-graders from Bancroft and Kimball elementary schools in the District in the fall harvesting of the White House Kitchen Garden on Thursday afternoon, much oohing, giggling, cuteness and shutter-clicking ensued.

The students, White House kitchen staff and representatives from Miriam's Kitchen -- which feeds the homeless and was the main beneficiary of the vegetable haul -- gathered on the South Lawn around picnic tables draped in red-and-white checked tablecloths and topped with baskets of apples.

White House assistant chef Sam Kass -- he of the bald pate and the People magazine-worthy physique -- divided the kids into groups of three. A trio of girls from Bancroft were paired with the first lady, who initiated a contest to see which kids could dig up the largest sweet potato. Obama noted that she and her daughters had already harvested a particularly hefty one. "They're huge," she said, underscoring the size of the potatoes by holding her hands approximately 12 inches apart. "They're huge!"

The first lady -- dressed in a pair of lapis jeans, a purple cardigan and purple sneakers -- and her team of students -- dressed in yellow Bancroft T-shirts -- produced a basket filled with impressive tubers, which she presented to the assembled photographers and reporters for documentation.

Obama noted that already 740 pounds of food have been harvested from the garden, which cost less than $200 to plant.

For fall, in addition to the sweet potatoes, the children gathered wheelbarrows full of carrots, lettuce and enormous fennel plants, one of which required the full weight of the first lady and her team members to extract from the ground. "You're going to eat your vegetables, right?" Obama said in the way in which parents turn a question into a decree.

After all their hard work and before settling in for an afternoon snack of apples and cider, the young farmers gathered for a group photograph, proudly posing with their vegetables, the first lady and her one very muddy knee.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company