Monday, August 31, 2009

New Video: First Lady Michelle Obama and Sam Kass Tell The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden

The riveting, true veggie-tale of the shallots heard 'round the world...
In what is the first in a series of videos on the inner workings of the White House kitchen and all the food policy activity going on there, a new video about the White House Kitchen Garden, featuring First Lady Michelle Obama and White House assistant chef and Food Initiative Coordinator Sam Kass was released today. It's seven brilliant minutes from the first landscape flags that are laid to the first big harvest in June, with an excellent time-lapse sequence in the middle. The First Lady is interviewed, and speaks seriously about the impact of the garden on her own family as well as on the country, and notes that she thinks about the garden not only in terms of immediate change, but as a project that can alter life-long habits in eating--especially for children. "We wanted the focus to be on kids, because you can effect children's behavior so much more easily than you can with adults," Mrs. Obama says. She notes that helping families consider small changes that have big results--such as eliminating sugary and processed foods--is one of her goals as First Lady. Kass describes soil amendments made to the garden, the history of food gardens at the White House, and he discusses the impact of working with the Bancroft Elementary School students who helped in the garden (having child helpers was "tremendous...the kids took this to a level I could never even imagine," Kass says).

"The garden is really an important introduction to what I hope will be a new way to how the country thinks about food...and I also want to encourage people to think about doing more family meals," Mrs. Obama says. "We've found that we've been able to do that, and part of the message is that 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 thing."

The White House Kitchen Garden has been a critical part of the paradigm shift in the national conversation on health and nutrition that's been steadily coming out of the East Wing since January. Mrs. Obama is the only First Lady in the history of America to actually have a food policy team, it should be noted, led by Kass, and including advisers Jocelyn Frye and Melody Barnes. Bestselling author Michael Pollan has referred to the Kitchen Garden as "the most important event in sustainable agriculture this year," and he's right. But it's important for all other kinds of Obama policy initiatives too, including health care reform. (Kass, in photo)

Kass notes that First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt's WWII-era Victory Garden at the White House "...was probably the size of one bed we have a really productive 'feeding a lot of people' garden, this one [the current garden] is the first one in well over one hundred years." Seeds and starts from Monticello, President Thomas Jefferson's restored plantation home in Albemarle County, Virginia, were donated to the White House Kitchen Garden, and Kass mentions Monticello master gardener Peter Hatch in the video, too. The special Jefferson bed in the White House Kitchen Garden includes arrow peas, prickly spinach, "tennis ball" lettuce, brown Dutch lettuce and savoy red cabbage. There's also a Jefferson fig tree, which Kass has called one of his favorite things in the garden.

Kass credits Jefferson with transforming food in America: "Thomas Jefferson, more than any one man, changed the way we eat in this country and the way we grow food," Kass says. "When his ambassadors would go out all over the world, he would ask them to bring back seeds. He was the first person to start seasonal growing, and that is something people are coming back to now, and thinking about using a diversity of crops to keep growing throughout the year." Mrs. Obama, when visiting the Bancroft students at their elementary school, asked the Bancroft kids to continue to be her own "little ambassadors" for healthy eating.

What's not mentioned in the video: Whether or not the garden is organic, nor how many gardens around the country--and around the world--the White House Kitchen Garden has inspired. The garden isn't officially certified organic, which the White House has officially announced, despite it being repeatedly referred to in the media as "an organic garden." Organic certification is a complicated, three-year process. And while organic-ness, of whatever degree, is a nice part of the project, it's not the point. The point is encouraging an awareness of where food comes from, healthy eating, and making better lifestyle choices through small, incremental changes. There are, however, no chemical fertilizers or pesticides used on the garden. There's also no mention of the beehive, or the biocycler, which uses kitchen waste for compost...but hey, the vid is seven minutes, and each of those could be seven mintues on their own. (Photo: Kass with the WH biocycler)

More than a year ago, at a campaign fundraiser in Chicago, Mrs. Obama hinted that a garden was on the way, and it's been an amazing story, since. More info on Jefferson, Monticello, Peter Hatch, and the White House Kitchen Garden is here. Finally putting the lead rumors to rest: New test results from the Kitchen Garden are here. Recipes from the White House Kitchen Garden Harvest picnic are here. Kass previously starred in a video about the White House Kitchen Garden with Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard, which briefly made the phrase "Oh, snap, son!" famous.