Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Lettuce Leaves and Harvesting Dreams: The Bancroft Kids' Final Visit To The White House Kitchen Garden

From Farm To Fork To Farewell
As Ob Fo pointed out a few weeks ago, of course the White House isn't going to run a very public and very path-breaking food initiative program without teaching cooking, particularly because learning to cook is crucial to a healthy lifestyle. And today, the Bancroft Elementary School kids who've been helping First Lady Michelle Obama in the White House Kitchen Garden got the opportunity to cook in the White House kitchen, with the resident chefs, as part of their final visit to the White House. But first, they had to harvest the garden for some of their ingredients. (Above: Mrs. Obama and Bancroft kids cut lettuces)

The skies were cloudy and threatening rain, and gusts of strong wind ripped across the White House grounds as the kids sat at picnic tables by the garden. Assistant chef and Food Initiative Coordinator Sam Kass paced among the tables, chatted with the kids, answered questions. When the First Lady showed up, cheers erupted, and after Mrs. Obama greeted everyone, they descended on the garden--surrounded, of course, by an incredibly large contingent of media. Twelve pounds of snap peas and 73 pounds of lettuces and a single lone cucumber were harvested in about twenty minutes, and then the kids followed Kass and assistant chef Tafari Campbell into the White House kitchen (in pic).

The kids were decked out in paper toques and given aprons, then divided into three groups, each with a different assignment. One group dipped chicken breasts in egg and dredged these in breadcrumbs to make baked chicken, and they also worked on making brown rice.

"Breaded and baked is the new fried, " Kass announced, and he also admonished the kids to wash their hands whenever they handled raw chicken.

The second group of kids washed the lettuces and chopped onions, and the third group decorated vanilla cupcakes with fresh berries.

The cupcakes were made with honey--unclear if it was honey from the beehive by the garden--and frosted with white icing. When the meal was cooked, the kids trooped out to the First Lady's Garden--not the White House Kitchen Garden, but a different, private garden--to join Mrs. Obama at tables that were covered with red and white checked tablecloths, and set with plastic cutlery. The First Lady gave a remarkable, policy-dense speech--considering she was primarily addressing fifth graders--and discussed food deserts, food security and food justice; getting more fresh and nutritious foods into the USDA’s Child Nutrition programs; the critical issue of reducing diet-related disease; supporting local and smaller food producers; encouraging urban and community gardening. Mrs. Obama told the kids to eat their veggies every day, and told stories about what food was like when she was young--not processed, and she said that eating out was a treat, "like Christmas."

Mrs. Obama also thanked the kids for all their help in the garden, for inspiring her, and made them promise to return to visit, even when they were grown up and "cool." Perhaps most importantly, she anointed the kids as "ambassadors" of nutrition and healthy eating, and asked them to spread the word about everything they'd learned in the garden.

"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," Mrs. Obama said. "I want you to continue to be my little ambassadors in your own home and your own communities."

Kass made some for-the-media comments on what's been harvested from the garden to date, and he once again described how the garden is fertilized; it's fortified with crab meal from the Chesapeake Bay, green sand compost and lime powder. He also joked that Bo the First Pup hasn't been in the garden, but added that "something is nibbling a little bit on the kale."

For those keeping track, the garden harvest this time includes: Red oakleaf, green leaf and lola rossa lettuces, snap peas, one cucumber, kale, collard greens, chard and herbs, as well as rhubarb and lots of other kinds of lettuces. Chef Kass said the herbs from the garden were used every night, and that there were so many beans they were used every other night. DC has been very hot and very rainy, and the garden was, until today's harvest, filled with crops. (Above: The First Lady at the harvest picnic)

The kids were delighted with the meal, but perhaps more importantly, their lives have been permanently changed by their semester at the White House. They've gotten new appreciation and reverence for being stewards of the land, fa new appreciation for where food comes from and how it impacts every part of life, and a glimpse of what it's like to live a dream, if only briefly....

*Photos via Reuters