March 19, 2009
The New York Times
By MARIAN BURROS
WASHINGTON — On Friday, Michelle Obama will begin digging up a patch of White House lawn to plant a vegetable garden, the first since Eleanor Roosevelt’s victory garden in World War II. There will be no beets (the president doesn’t like them) but arugula will make the cut.
While the organic garden will provide food for the first family’s meals and formal dinners, its most important role, Mrs. Obama said, will be to educate children about healthful, locally grown fruit and vegetables at time when obesity has become a national concern.
In an interview in her office, Mrs. Obama said, “My hope is that through children, they will begin to educate their families and that will, in turn, begin to educate our communities.”
Twenty-three fifth graders from Bancroft Elementary School in Washington will help her dig up the soil for the 1,100-square-foot plot in a spot visible to passers-by on E Street. (It’s just below the Obama girls’ swing set.) Students from the school, which has had a garden since 2001, will also help plant, harvest and cook the vegetables, berries and herbs.
Almost the entire Obama family, including the president, will pull weeds, “whether they like it or not,” Mrs. Obama said laughing. “Now Grandma, my mom, I don’t know.” Her mother, she said, would probably sit back and say: “Isn’t that lovely. You missed a spot.”
Whether there would be a White House garden has been more than a matter of landscaping. It’s taken on political and environmental symbolism as the Obamas have been lobbied for months by advocates who believe that growing more food locally could lead to healthier eating and lessen reliance on huge industrial farms that use more oil for transportation and chemicals for fertilizer.
In the meantime, promoting healthful eating has become an important part of Mrs. Obama’s agenda.
“The power of Michelle Obama and the garden can create a very powerful message about eating healthy and more delicious food,” said Dan Barber, an owner of Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., an organic restaurant that grows many of its own ingredients. “I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it could translate into real change.”
The Clintons grew some vegetables in pots on the roof of the White House. But the Obamas’ garden will have 55 varieties of vegetables — from a wish list of the kitchen staff — grown from organic seedlings started at the executive mansion’s greenhouses.
The Obamas will feed their love of Mexican food with cilantro, tomatilloes and hot peppers. Lettuces will include red romaine, green oak leaf, butterhead, red leaf and galactic. There will be spinach, chard, collards and black kale. For desserts, there will be a patch of berries. And herbs will include some more unusual varieties, like anise hyssop and Thai basil. A White House carpenter who is a beekeeper will tend two hives for honey.
Total cost for the seeds, mulch, etc., is $200.
The plots will be in raised beds fertilized with White House compost, crab meal from the Chesapeake Bay, lime and green sand. Ladybugs and praying mantises will help control harmful bugs.
Cristeta Comerford, the White House’s executive chef, is eager to plan menus around the garden, and Bill Yosses, the pastry chef, is looking forward to berry season.
Sam Kass, an assistant White House chef who prepared healthful meals for the Obama family in Chicago and is an advocate of local food, will oversee the garden. The White House grounds crew and kitchen staff will do most of the work, but other White House staff members have volunteered.
“First of all,” Mrs. Obama said, “there’s nothing really cooler than coming to the White House and harvesting some of the vegetables and being in the kitchen with Cris and Sam and Bill, and cutting and cooking and actually experiencing the joys of your work.”
Mrs. Obama, who said that she never had a vegetable garden before, said the idea for it came from her experiences as a working mother trying to feed her daughters, Malia and Sasha, a good diet. Eating out three times a week, ordering a pizza, having a sandwich for dinner all took their toll. The children’s pediatrician told her she needed to be thinking about nutrition.
“He raised a flag for us,” she said, and within months the children lost weight.
For children, she said, food is all about taste, and fresh and local taste better.
“A real delicious heirloom tomato is one of the sweetest things that you’ll ever eat,” she said. “And my children know the difference, and that’s how I’ve been able to get them to try different things.
“I wanted to be able to bring what I learned to a broader base of people. And what better way to do it than to plant a vegetable garden in the South Lawn of the White House.”
The country’s one million community gardens, she said, can also play an important role for urban dwellers who have no backyards.
But, sitting in her office in the East Wing, Mrs. Obama stressed that she doesn’t want people to feel guilty if they don’t have the time to have a garden: there are still many small changes they can make.
“You can begin in your own cupboard by eliminating processed food, trying to cook a meal a little more often, trying to incorporate more fruits and vegetables,” she said.