Sunday, September 20, 2009

The White House Kitchen Garden at Six Months: From Child Nutrition Initiative to Food Policy Game Changer

The shallots 'heard round the world...from ground breaking to food policy agenda.
Exactly six months ago today, First Lady Michelle Obama first broke ground for the White House Kitchen Garden. At the time, the event seemed so unprecedented it landed Mrs. Obama in her first-ever solo turn, without President Obama, above the fold on the front pages of both the New York Times and the Washington Post, and it also made international news. What began as something of an experiment in teaching children better eating habits by helping them understand where food comes from has turned into a paradigm shift in America's food consciousness, originating with the White House (Top: The garden, photographed yesterday morning; and Mrs. Obama at the goundbreaking). The garden has electrified a big part of America (and the international community) into an awareness of a panoply of food issues, and its influence will continue to be felt for years. Last Thursday, when speaking at the opening of the Farmers Market by the White House, Mrs. Obama called the garden "one of the greatest things I’ve done in my life so far," a reference to the wide reach the project has had. Over the last six months, the garden has transformed from a masterpiece of non-verbal messaging into a huge public platform for Mrs. Obama to speak about food policy issues that no First Lady--and for that matter, no president--has addressed in a consistent manner ever before. On Thursday, Mrs. Obama also noted that whenever she travels overseas, the garden is the first thing that "prime ministers, kings and queens" ask about (second fave topic? Bo the dog...). In addition to providing food for the White House and DC social services agency Miriam's Kitchen, the garden has become a cultural icon and a game-changer for thinking about food, cooking, and agriculture.

Herewith, a brief recap of the garden time line, the development of the First Lady's food policy agenda, and a look at how the mainstream media responded:

*March 18, 2009: After Ob Fo blogged about a cover-story interview for Oprah Winfrey's O magazine, in which Mrs. Obama told Oprah that a food garden would be planted at the White House, ABC news producer Brian Hartman sent in White House pool reporters Sunlen Miller and Ann Compton to snoop out some answers, and they verified that in fact, a garden was imminent. The media frenzy began, with everyone trying to guess when the garden would actually happen. (Photo: The left quadrant of the garden, photographed yesterday)

*March 20, 2009: The Groundbreaking. On the first day of Spring, and Day 60 of the Obama presidency, Mrs. Obama led the groundbreaking, with chef Sam Kass in charge, as well as White House horticulturalist Dale Haney. The entire staff of the White House kitchen turned out, including Executive Chef Cris Comerford and Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses, a subtle message that "eating is an agricultural act," as Wendell Berry puts it. A class of fifth grade students from DC's Bancroft Elementary School was introduced as Mrs. Obama's co-gardeners. The kids had been gardening at their own school, and were old hands. There was a picnic snack with lemonade and shovel-shaped cookies, and Mrs. Obama led the kids in cheers: "Yay for fruits, yay for vegetables!" This was the event that thrust the garden into the international spotlight, and landed Mrs. Obama--and Sam Kass--above the fold on major American newspapers. It was announced that 55 varieties of vegetables would be installed in the 1,100 acre L-shaped plot, including red romaine, green oak leaf, butter head, red leaf and galactic lettuces, spinach, chard, collards and black kale, shallots, carrots, shell peas, sugar snap peas, broccoli, fennel, and rhubarb, and onions, as well as herbs and edible flowers. Pest control would be ladybugs and praying mantises advantageously released, and nasturtiums, zinnias, and marigolds--bug deflecting plants--would be introduced, as well. (Above: Mrs. Obama and Sam Kass break ground)

*March 28, 2009: Sam Kass, Food Initiative Coordinator: Buried in one of the White House press releases about the garden was a mention that Kass had been named Mrs. Obama's Food Initiative Coordinator, which all media overlooked, until your intrepid blogger started blogging about it, and suggested that Mrs. Obama had big plans tucked up her gardening gloves. Which turned out to be true.

*April 9, 2009: The First Planting. Mrs. Obama, Kass, Haney, the White House chefs and a huge pool of media are joined by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack for the first planting. The garden plot had been tested for heavy metals (and found to have an incredibly low occurrence of these), as well as amended with organic materials. The National Park Service released the test results, but this particular issue was ignored until a few months later. Mrs. Obama's remarks on the day of planting were related primarily to the garden itself as a nutrition education project; she noted that as a mother, she was very aware of the need for fresh fruits and vegetables for kids, and for healthy school lunches, and the need for nutrition education. There was no mention of federal feeding programs, of processed foods, of farmers markets, of food access or food swamps; Mrs. Obama's comments were short and to the point. Still, the remarks were unprecedented, even though the East Wing food policy agenda was in its earliest stages, and there was little indication of the dizzying heights it would ascend to. Peter Hatch, master gardener, donated seeds and starts from Thomas Jefferson's historically correct garden at Monticello for a special Jefferson homage bed, which Kass later referred to as his "favorite part of the garden." A beehive by White House carpenter Charlie Brandts was also announced. The First Lady's remarks were again straight forward, fairly simple, and she noted that healthy eating was very important for kids, and that they needed to include fresh fruits and vegetables in their daily lunches; she said she'd learned this from her own experiences as a mother. She did, however, point out that the relatively inexpensive garden--at a projected cost of about $200, would produce hundreds of pounds of vegetables, which would be used for "State Dinners" as well as donated to Miriam's Kitchen. A full text of the First Lady's remarks are here. To date, there's been only one state dinner, but the garden food crops have been used for all kinds of other formal and informal events at the White House, and the first harvest of greens was used to make salads for the Congressional Spouses Lunch, in May, which Mrs. Obama hosted at the White House. (Above: Mrs. Obama looks on as Kass discusses soil with the Bancroft kids)

*Friday May 29: Mrs. Obama visited the Bancroft kids at their own school, and gave her very first unprecedented food policy speech...which went completely unreported by the mainstream media, which focused on Mrs. Obama's outfit. Your intrepid blogger was not among the pool reporters for the event, but after reading the transcript the next day, was thrilled to discover the the First Lady had covered the importance of changing the foods allowed in the federal school lunch program, and farmers markets, and the affordability of food, and eating together as a family, and community issues and food access, and eating less processed foods, diet-related disease....among other food policy issues. The speech was wide ranging, and touched on major policy topics in a serious way (Photo: Mrs. Obama and Kass at Bancroft school). The kids also read short essays about all the garden project had meant to them, some of which would later be published in Children's Health magazine, alongside an interview with Mrs. Obama.

*June 6, 2009: The Ryan Howard Garden Tour. In something of a test balloon for social media use and internet messaging, the White House released a video of Kass and Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard taking a tour of the garden. "Oh, snap, son!" immediately became a classic turn of phrase; it was Howard's comment when Kass mentioned that the beehive would produce about 100 pounds of honey annually. The video had big views on Youtube, but was also posted around the internet on sports sites, parenting sites, and Howard fan sites, and pop culture/entertainment sites, as well as on food and gardening sites.

*June 16, 2009: The White House Garden Harvest Event. For the final Bancroft student visit to the White House Kitchen Garden, the kids harvested a huge amount of crops with Mrs. Obama, Kass, and the White House chefs, then finished the Agri-education food literacy loop and went into the kitchen and cooked up a picnic meal of breaded and baked chicken, brown rice, salad, and snap peas. Kass released Harvest Picnic recipes from the White House Kitchen for the first time (although not for the Harvest Cupcakes which accompanied the event...and which Ob Fo readers are still requesting...). The foods were kid friendly and easy to make. Kass' comment that "breaded and baked is the new fried" was now competing with "Oh, snap, son!" as best line relating to the garden. Again, Mrs. Obama made a food policy-laden speech, standing in the First Lady's Garden at the White House, that was even more forceful than the one delivered at Bancroft School. As she discussed food access, federal feeding programs, health care reform and diet-related disease, farmers markets and food access, she also noted that fast and processed food were a rarity when she was a child...and for the first time went on the record that these should be avoided. Mrs. Obama was essentially announcing her food agenda for the rest of the President's administration and...making her debut as the populist leader of the American food movement. The First Lady reinforced all of this in an interview with Robin Roberts of Good Morning America, which was taped on the same day as the Harvest Picnic. (Above: The First Lady harvesting with Bancroft students)

*June, 2009: And then...the fake controversies began: The President had Birthers, the First Lady had Leadites. The garden theme of June came to be Lead Me Entertain You, as a bunch of media outlets and bloggers ran wild with a badly fact-checked story from Mother Jones magazine, in which the writer tried to make a case for lead contamination in the White House Kitchen garden. --And which Mother Jones is still refusing to recant, even though it's been debunked repeated times. Ob Fo debunked the lead myth here on the blog and on the Huffington Post, and the White House released a statement about lead levels (93 parts per million; state Ag agencies consider food gardening to be safe, without soil amendments, in gardens that have up to 300-400 parts per million). The White House also noted that the garden was not officially organic. The mainstream media and blogosphere had been reporting the garden as "organic" since the groundbreaking, but the White House had never included this in its official statements, and in fact Mrs. Obama had never used the word when discussing the garden. The White House released new lead test results for the garden on August 13, which showed that the already low lead levels in the garden were even lower than they had been previously--they were now at 14 ppm (above: Kass with the biocycler, a good place for all the faux controversies). Other controversies: Drudge Report had Mrs. Obama front and center for 24 hours, with accusations that the garden was installed rather than grown (photo). A nonstory about chemical companies being furious about Mrs. Obama not using pesticides in the garden kept getting repeated around the internet, but no one could ever produce the huge petition that the pro-pesticide lobby had supposedly generated. The Daily Show made a spoof video of Jeff Stier's garden rants; he's a chemical industry lobbyist who took the opportunity to criticize the garden publicly to promote his own position as a science-minded fellow. But as Stier himself points out, anyone looks bad if they're edited correctly, and he was just expressing his point of view. All of this activity died down as Mrs. Obama fell off the public radar--a tiny bit--with few formal public appearances during the summer. But the garden had become a cultural touchstone, for both positive and negative use. On TV, in news magazines, and internet stories, even if the topic was about something unrelated to the White House Kitchen Garden, if it had to do with food and health, Mrs. Obama and the garden were mentioned.

*Replica gardens, Royal Gardens, service gardens, international interest: There have been a lot of edible gardens attributed to Mrs. Obama's influence since the White House Kitchen Garden debuted, but she herself is quick to point out that there were over one million community gardens in existence in America before she planted hers. But she also spearheaded the Summer of Service initiative, with United We Serve, and community garden projects--and food bank assistance--were some of the projects. By July, a bevy of state First Ladies had installed edible gardens around the country; including California's First Lady Maria Shriver; and Kentucky's First Lady Jane Bashear got a lot of press mid-summer for hers...which like Mrs. Obama's was giving produce to local food banks and soup kitchens. At Bloom 2009, Dublin's biggest horticultural festival, a replica of the White House Kitchen garden drew thousands of visitors. Burpee Seeds has just planted a replica garden, which will debut next weekend in Pennsylvania (photo above). HRH Queen Elizabeth II planted an edible garden at Buckingham Palace which was credited to Mrs. Obama's influence (in pic), as was the edible garden planted by Sarah Brown, wife of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. When the President and Mrs. Obama traveled to Russia in July, the First Lady's popularity was credited to her gardening.

August 31: The White House releases a beautiful video, The Story of the Garden, narrated by Mrs. Obama and Sam Kass. The video messages the First Ladys's food agenda...and includes a time lapse video sequence of the garden actually growing, in order to combat suggestions by the "conspiracy theorists"--including the Drudge Report--that the garden had been installed with mature plants, rather than grown. The video also shows Kass and Haney amending the soil with nutrients such as Chesapeake Bay crab meal and green sand, as a way of hitting back at the lead rumors. The video has close to 60,000 views on Youtube, but that's an inaccurate tracking number, because it's also been posted all over the internet.

Sept. 12, Fall Garden Media Mania: Mrs. Obama and some of the Bancroft kids appear on the cover of Children's Health magazine, which also published excerpts from some of the kids' excellent Bancroft school essays on all they'd learned from their experience in the White House Kitchen Garden. Sam Kass had his first solo profile in Men's Health magazine, by writer Mark Bittman. Kass and Bittman harvested veggies from the garden, and cooked together in the White House kitchen, and in the interview they have a discussion about why cooking is both a responsibility and a critical part of nutrition education..and the obvious outcome of gardening.

The White House Kitchen Garden has become a six-month-long teachable moment, but it has fulfilled its original purpose beyond all expectations, as well as turned into a game changer for food policy. It's brought attention to the importance of food literacy and cooking, to small farmers, to home gardeners, to food access and food security, to community action, to preventable diet-related disease and health care reform, to federal feedeing programs and nutrition standards, land stewardship, the importance of local food sourcing, among many other things (read this crib sheet on Mrs. Obama's latest remarks about food, from the opening of the White House Farmers Market, for a summation of all the issues the garden encompasses). Suffice it to say, it's been one long bright shining moment in American Ag history. And it's worth noting, in closing, that when author Michael Pollan published Farmer in Chief in October of 2008, his open letter to both presidential candidates that pointed out that food would necessarily take center stage over the next four years...he probably didn't have Mrs. Obama in mind. But she's turned into the Farmer in Chief, and that's a swell thing. (Photo: The garden in late April just after it started to sprout...)