Friday, October 30, 2009

The White House Kitchen Garden Fall Harvest by The Numbers: Hundreds of Pounds of Crops, 134 Pounds of Honey, $175 in Costs, 1 Amazing Project

...and millions of interested citizens. As a new chapter begins for the garden, Mrs. Obama welcomes two new classes of students...
At Thursday's Fall Harvest event for what is one of First Lady Michelle Obama's most high-profile projects, the Kitchen Garden, she wowed her guests with a serious vegonomic recovery number: “Over 740 pounds of food have come out of this little piece of land!” Mrs. Obama said. (Above: Mrs. Obama and her garden guests gather with the Fall harvest)

Since ground was broken for the 1,100 square foot plot just a little more than seven months ago, there's been a lot of interest in numbers whenever the Kitchen Garden is discussed: How many different varieties of crops are included, how long these take to grow, how many children and adults are newly discovering gardening thanks to Mrs. Obama's influence, how many are impacted by the kind of diet-related diseases that eating nutritious foods can prevent.

 But though Thursday's Harvest guests heard about a lot of numbers, the afternoon was both more profound than that, and far simpler. It was a single hour devoted to the next phase of a project that has influenced so many people and inspired so many other projects that it is almost incalculable.

Mrs. Obama was joined by visiting fifth graders from DC's Bancroft and Kimball elementary schools, who are just beginning their White House vegucation, though this wasn't their first visit to the Executive Mansion. Many of the children were at the Healthy Kids Fair at the White House last week, too, which might explain why they seemed so comfortable around the First Lady, her Food Initiative Coordinator, Sam Kass, and the rest of the White House chefs. (Above: The First Lady talks lettuce with the kids)

There was much laughter as the children waited for Mrs. Obama's arrival, and as Kass pointed out the crops in the garden, which was heavily laden with ready-to-be harvested veggies. Also present for the harvest: Representatives from Miriam's Kitchen, the local social services agency that's received some of the garden's bounty (another set of numbers to track). Everyone was seated at picnic tables covered with red and white checked table clothes when Mrs. Obama arrived, and she was greeted with cheers.

But it got very quiet when Mrs. Obama started to talk about the Kitchen Garden. The kids listened raptly, even though the ones from Bancroft school may well have been able to tell the story themselves; their schoolmates helped in the garden in the Spring. (Above: Mrs. Obama explained the garden's history before the digging began)

“So this garden wasn't here before. Nothing was here. This was grass like everything else," Mrs. Obama said. "So we thought, well, wouldn't it be great if we could use this garden to talk about the importance of healthy eating and what good, fresh foods taste like?”

The First Lady made no hard policy statements during her remarks, and mentioned no statistics about diet-related disease, as she’s done at other garden events, but instead related just the simplest facts: The Bancroft students who helped her last year came to the White House...they tore up the grass...they planted seeds...they harvested...they celebrated their hard work. She didn't mention that on the way, those students learned things about food and eating and agricultural history that changed their lives. She also didn't add that that might be one of the reasons she's called the Kitchen Garden "one of the greatest things I've done in my life." She didn't have to. There were more immediate issues to focus on.

“And now it’s Fall and there’s a whole new crop of food ready to be harvested," Mrs. Obama said. "So that’s why we invited you all here today.”

She pointed out that all of the food taken from the garden would be donated to Miriam's Kitchen; Mrs. Obama worked the soup line at Miriam's Kitchen as her very first community service event in DC, and the White House has maintained a close relationship with the organization since, with staff serving on volunteer shifts, among other things. Miriam's serves fresh, healthy food daily each morning, and has recently expanded to dinner service, too.

Mrs. Obama told the kids that she’d already done a little bit of harvesting with daughters Malia and Sasha.

“We got a couple of sweet potatoes,” Mrs. Obama said. "And those sweet potatoes are huuuuuge. They’re huuuuge!” She held her hands about a foot apart, to illustrate the size calculation, and the kids laughed in disbelief. In short order, they’d see the sweet potatoes for themselves.

But first, Mrs. Obama quizzed the kids about veggie numbers, and asked them how much they thought it had cost to grow the veggies that have fed the First Family, world leaders, members of Congress, and yes, the guests who go to Miriam's Kitchen for meals. (Above: Pastry Chef Bill Yosses, center, and Exec Chef Cris Comerford, r, emerge from the garden to greet the kids)

"Three hundred dollars!" called out a student.

"I have three hundred dollars," Mrs. Obama joked, suddenly an auctioneer.

"Eight hundred dollars!" Called out another student. Mrs. Obama shook her head.

“A thousand!” offered another child. Mrs. Obama laughed and pointed at another child.

"Six thousand dollars!" The child responded. The garden was right behind Mrs. Obama, and it looked so big and lush, six thousand dollars probably seemed entirely reasonable. Mrs. Obama and the other adults laughed.

"No," Mrs. Obama said. “To grow all this food cost less than two hundred dollars. It was about about $120 to make sure the soil was fine and good, and $55 for the seeds.”

She explained that some of the crops had been started as seeds, and some had come from "little tiny plants." Mrs. Obama introduced everyone to Jim Adams, the chief horticulturalist at the White House, and explained his job.

“He [Jim] really was responsible for how productive this garden was,” Mrs. Obama said. “Because y’know, we sort of knew a little bit about how to garden…But how do you know what to plant where, and what’s gonna grow well in this soil…Well, Jim helped us figure out how to get the right kind of fruit to grow at what season. So thanks to Jim we have a very productive garden.”

Mrs. Obama led the kids in a round of applause for Adams.

It seemed clear the kids were itching to dig in the dirt, whatever the numbers might be. Before Mrs. Obama arrived, Kass had prepped them, explaining which crops they’d be harvesting. He pointed at the different sections of the garden, and called out “Broccoli, broccoli rabe, zucchini, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, radishes, carrots…lots of broccoli…a few kinds of turnips…it’s all coming out.” (Above: Kass shows his helpers how to get a potato out of the soil without smashing it)

Kass divided the kids into groups, and announced there would be three kids helping each adult harvest: More numerical calculations.

"So you three go with the bald guy when we get started," Kass joked, pointing to three kids, and referring to himself.

"You're all bald," one boy shot back, giggling, and he had a point. Kass, Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses, and assistant chef David Luerson all rock the clean look. Kass laughed.

"You're with me," Kass said. “You stick with me.”

Kass moved over to the gang of media that was behind a rope line, and re-explained what was going to be harvested. There were many reporters from foreign press, a testament to how famous the Kitchen Garden has become, and there were plenty of questions from some people who clearly had never been near a garden--or perhaps near the White House kitchen. Kass wasn't wearing his trademark white chef's coat, which caused some confusion among the members of the media, because they couldn’t quite place him. (Photo: Kass, "incognito")

“Who is that guy?” A few reporters asked Ob Fo, and others queried the White House media wranglers. Clearly some of the reporters have not kept track of Kass's now-frequent appearances in the press. So Kass repeated the veggie harvest list a few times, and he added that the garden will be a succession garden, with crops growing year round.

“Right now, the broccoli and spinach and lettuce will just keep going," Kass said. “And we’re still deciding what else to plant for the winter.”

“Do you have a root cellar in the White House kitchen?" One of the more foodcentric reporters asked, after Kass had emphasized the sweet potatoes a few times.

“No,” Kass said. "Not really, we have a place that we use as a root cellar, that’s dark and cool. It’s a make-shift root cellar, but it does the job.”

During the harvest, Mrs. Obama and Kass each took their groups of students to raised boxed beds that held the sweet potatoes, and a little contest ensued to see which group would come up with the bigger sweet potato. And in case anyone had disbelieved Mrs. Obama’s announcement about the huuuge tuber she’d already harvested, in short order she’d yanked up another massive sweet potato. And then another, and another. The numbers were impressive, again. (Above: Mrs. Obama with her helpers, and a jumbo sweet potato. Horticulturalist Adams is in green)

On the other side of the garden, the White House chefs, including Executive Chef Cris Comerford, were going at the lettuces and peas. They also busily picked tomatillos and cabbage. Meantime, Mrs. Obama and her kids had moved on to fennel, and she pulled an astonishingly large root out of the ground, getting muddy in the process. Pretty soon there were many bowls filled with produce, which the kids happily weighed on a scale (more numbers!), and at last there was an entire wheel barrow filled with sweet potatoes and carrots (above).

There were plenty of earthworms, too. Mrs. Obama paused and held up one squiggly creature for the photographers, who snapped away madly. "This means the soil is very healthy!" Mrs. Obama said. And then she returned the worm to the ground, lest there be another cry of alarm from PETA, as happened when President Obama caught a fly that was buzzing around the Blue Room, when he was being interviewed a few months ago. Kass noted that all the worms had shown up on their own, and hadn't been purposely added to the garden for composting.

After the harvesting was done, everyone trooped up to the driveway that cuts the South Lawn in half, and posed with the newly harvested crops, with the White House as a back drop, for a single dramatic photo op. There were cheers, and everyone shouted the single word that is the point of it all: "Vegetables!" Mrs. Obama then turned to the kids with some simple parting advice: "Eat your vegetables, and work hard in school!"

“I have to go meet the President now,” she said. She handed out a lot of hugs, and then vanished back into the White House. (Above: Mrs. Obama with one of her helpers; she's holding fennel)

The kids returned to the picnic tables by the garden with Kass and the other chefs, for snacks served by the White House ushers: Granola, apples, and cider.

As the media was led away, Kass was already perched on top of a picnic table, explaining more details about the winter garden crops to the kids. They listened intently, their snacks almost forgotten. Kass can be counted on to change their lives, as can Mrs. Obama. (Above: The harvest bounty)

More numbers...

Before the harvest started, Ob Fo queried Semonti Stephens, Mrs. Obama’s assistant press secretary, about some other garden numbers. On the honey from the White House beehive: Is it 100 gallons, or 100 pounds?

“It’s exactly 134 pounds of honey,” Stephens said, very precisely, because clearly this has lately been a big topic of discussion, after horticulturalist Dale Haney accidentally announced that it was 100 gallons last week on the Today show. And because we were on the subject of bees, Stephens added that Beekeeper Charlie Brandts has joined the Kitchen Garden tours that the White House is running for visiting school groups. So far exactly three groups have visited, and Stephens said that Kass has led each tour.

“We have groups applying for April and May dates now,” Stephens noted. She also said that any school group can apply through the online form on the White House website, and it doesn’t have to just be local school groups. “If you’re here, and we can fit you in, you can tour the garden,” Stephens said. (Above: Kass checks out the garden, pre-harvest)

That will thrill plenty of people.

Related: The garden gets new signage, and a brief history, is here. A detailed look at the garden on its six-month anniversary, including messaging and media myths, is here.

*Photos by Eddie Gehman Kohan/ Obama Foodorama