Michelle Obama’s ‘Kitchen Garden’ Changing Attitudes About Food

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“In the single year since the groundbreaking, Mrs. Obama has caused a dramatic paradigm shift, and rapidly moved the national conversation about the relationship between food and health from the margins of public debate and straight into the mainstream.”



When the First Lady broke ground for a garden on the south lawn of the White House last spring, it was front page news in the New York Times and Washington Post.

Michelle Obama planted the first “kitchen garden” since Eleanor Roosevelt’s 1943 “Victory Garden,” and it’s been the talk of the nation since.

Obama and the White House chefs have talked about the garden on the popular TV shows, including Iron Chef America, The Biggest Loser, The Martha Stewart Show and the Today show.

Obama set out to use her garden as a way to promote the connection between good food, good nutrition and good health.

“This was the way the first lady wanted to enter a much broader conversation around food and health, particularly with our children,” Sam Kass, the assistant White House chef and food initiative co-ordinator, told members of the North America Agricultural Journalists here during a tour of the garden April 27.

“And it has served as a pretty effective platform… about getting ideas of eating right and fruits and vegetables, family meals and so forth to the nation.”

It also fits with Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign created to reduce childhood obesity to five per cent by 2030 from the current 17 per cent.

Groups such as Kitchen Gardeners International lobbied the Obamas to plant a vegetable garden to promote local food production. But the First Lady, who never had a vegetable garden before, told the New York Times she was also motivated to improve the eating habits of her daughters Malia and Sasha. Eating out several times a week had contributed to weight gain, prompting their pediatrician to advise Obama to think more about nutrition.

“I also want to encourage people to do more family meals,” Obama said in an Internet video. “If the President of the United States can sit down with his family and have dinner, hopefully more families find the time to do the same things.”

More than symbolic

The White House kitchen garden is more than symbolic. Last year the 1,100-square foot plot produced 1,008 pounds of food – almost one pound per square foot. Most of it was fed to the Obamas, but it was also served at state dinners and a third was given away, including to a nearby charity that feeds homeless people.

“In the end, what’s really powerful about the garden is it shows kids where food comes from and how to grow it and what it means to actually grow food,” Kass says as he leads reporters through the garden.

“I think that connection has been pretty amazing – to watch kids thinking about and start appreciating where their food comes from.”

Twenty-three Grade 5 students from nearby Bancroft Elementary helped prepare and plant the garden last year. They returned to help harvest and then cook and eat some of what was produced.

Kass says he’s learned things too, including that it doesn’t take a lot of land or a lot of money to produce a lot of food. He estimates the garden cost around $200 to prepare and plant.

But it’s also a lot of work, Kass admits. Although Obama vowed her family would pull weeds “whether they like it or not,” usually 15 or so White House staffers volunteer each week to help tend the garden.

What next?

Kass remains tight-lipped about what the President’s favourite and least favourite vegetables are. It’s as if it’s a matter of national security. According to the New York Times the 44th U.S. President doesn’t like beets.

Kass says he relishes his time in the garden. Other than the odd cutworm or cheeky squirrel stealing tomatoes, there haven’t been many pest problems.

Backyard chickens are the latest rage in urban food production. Might they be the next addition to the White House grounds?

“Sometimes I mess around with the Secret Service and tell them they’re on the way,” a grinning Kass says. “No, we’re not going to have chickens on the White House lawn.”

The 19-acre White House has been home to livestock before though.

Eighteen sheep grazed there during World War I. President Woodrow Wilson introduced them to save on lawn mowing costs. The wool collected was auctioned off and the money donated to the American Red Cross.

Imagine what people would pay for a White House egg.

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