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Instead of Traffic, Fresh Tomatoes

First Lady Helps Celebrate Opening of Vermont Avenue Farmers Market

First lady Michelle Obama was on hand to support the opening of a farmers market that closed Vermont Avenue between H and Eye Streets NW to traffic Thursday afternoon. Video by Gerald Martineau, edited by Francine Uenuma/The Washington Post
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 18, 2009

Michelle Obama continued her crusade for fresh food and local farmers under drizzly skies Thursday when she spoke before a cheering crowd at the opening of the District's newest farmers market, just blocks from the White House.

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"I have to say, I have never seen so many people so excited about fruits and vegetables!" she said as several hundred foodies and first-lady fans raised their cellphones and cameras to capture the moment. "This is good!"

The market is the fifth in the city run by Freshfarm Markets, which had sought to put it closer to the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue but was stymied by security concerns. Last week, with the support of neighborhood groups, the nonprofit group was granted permission to close off a block of Vermont Avenue between H and I streets NW from 1 to 8 p.m. Thursdays until Oct. 29. The market is open from 3 to 7 p.m.

"It's an exciting day," said Bernadine Prince, co-director of Freshfarm Markets. Obama is "making healthy eating a priority. What we need to do now is make it a national habit."

Tents belonging to 19 farmers from the Chesapeake Bay watershed lined the closed-off block. Obama urged the crowd to take advantage of the offerings: wooden crates overflowing with yellow corn and gala apples, tables filled with tomatoes, peppers and eggplant.

"I've learned that when my family eats fresh food, healthy food, that it really affects how we feel, how we get through the day," she said, "and that's whether we're trying to get through math homework or whether there's a Cabinet meeting or whether we're just walking the dog."

Then she heeded her own advice and -- wearing a lei of marigolds offered by a 5-year-old girl -- descended from the podium to shake hands and buy a basketful of Tuscan kale, eggs, cherry tomatoes, mixed hot peppers, pears, fingerling potatoes, cheese and chocolate milk.

Following suit, members of the crowd fanned out to farmers' stands, where they gawked at giant sweet potatoes, tasted tomatoes and asked how to use celery root in a soup. A Secret Service worker who had just finished his shift sampled every kind of goat cheese at one stand, then chose a brie to take home to his wife.

Employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Export-Import Bank, whose buildings flank the block, shrugged off concerns about closing Vermont Avenue during rush hour.

"There's not a lot of options for fresh food in the District," said Roz Howard, 37, a management analyst at Veterans Affairs. "You shut down for sporting events all the time. Why not for something that can really help people?"

Howard Schwartz, 56, an administrative law judge at Veterans Affairs, stood in the middle of Vermont Avenue taking the second-to-last bite of a nectarine. He'd watched the first lady extol the virtues of fresh food from the fifth floor of the Lafayette Building and decided to come down and partake.

"I used to pick and pack peaches near Niagara Falls," he said. "What I've been eating around here is plastic, but this here is wonderful stuff."

He couldn't park his motorcycle on Vermont Avenue on Thursday and had to the take the Metro but said it was a small price to pay: "I'll give up my motorcycle for a really good nectarine."

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