Saturday, March 20, 2010

First Lady Michelle Obama's White House Kitchen Garden Is One Unprecedented Year Old

How Mrs. Obama's simple act of digging up the South Lawn became a national, mainstream food & health campaign
First Lady Michelle Obama recently called the White House Kitchen Garden "1,100 square feet of pure joy." She's also called it one of the greatest achievements of her life.

Today is the one year anniversary of the groundbreaking for the garden, and it is now quite possibly the most famous garden in the world. It's a project that is as much about changing America's ideas about food as it is about food itself. And in the single year since the groundbreaking, Mrs. Obama has caused a dramatic paradigm shift, and rapidly moved the national conversation about the relationship between food and health from the margins of public debate and straight into the mainstream. (Above: Mrs. Obama and chief groundskeeper Dale Haney with Bancroft Elementary students at the groundbreaking)

March 20, 2009, was exactly two months after President Obama's inauguration. America was still getting used to its new First Lady when Mrs. Obama spun the very idea of "first lady" into new territory, by donning boots and gardening gloves and picking up a hoe. It was both historic and historically referential: Five decades before, Eleanor Roosevelt, another pathbreaking First Lady, had also planted an edible garden. Mrs. Obama's garden was started on the first day of Spring, and a Friday. She was joined by 26 giddy fifth graders from DC's Bancroft Elementary School, and the White House chefs and other staff, as the packed earth of the South Lawn was torn up. (Above: A now iconic photo of Mrs. Obama during the groundbreaking)

The day before the ground breaking, Mrs. Obama said that she'd discovered from her own daughters that kids were willing to try new foods, especially vegetables, if they were fresh and delicious.

“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?” Mrs. Obama told the New York Times.

Mrs. Obama's very toned arms had already caught the world's attention. Suddenly, those toned arms made a different kind of sense, and had something to do with growing food. And eating it, as she lauded the benefits of fresh, and very local vegetables, as she dug in the dirt. The Mother in Chief and Fashion Icon in Chief was immediately Gardener in Chief.

A unified theory of the universe...
The kids who broke ground with Mrs. Obama returned during the Spring to help her plant and harvest the Kitchen Garden, too. It became obvious pretty rapidly that the kids were being profoundly influenced by their experience. Mrs. Obama started her campaign to end child obesity, Let's Move!, in part, she says, because she was inspired by the Bancroft kids' willingness to take to heart all they'd learned. They wrote moving essays about their experience in the garden, and read these to Mrs. Obama when she visited their school, and helped plant in their own garden.

The campaign to end child obesity not only supports many of President Obama's initiatives, from health care reform through educational achievement and military preparedness, but it is also the first of its kind out of any White House. It's also the first national campaign that regards growing food, having access to it, having it be affordable, cooking it, eating it, improving information about food, exercising, fitness and health as a single, interrelated subject. That's unprecedented, but Mrs. Obama has also said it's just "common sense."

"This isn’t like putting a man on the moon or inventing the Internet – it doesn’t take some stroke of genius or feat of technology," Mrs. Obama said about Let's Move!, at the official White House launch event. "We have everything we need, right now, to help our kids lead healthy lives."

This "unified theory of foodativity" allows for a multiplicity of entry points to join the campaign, and join Mrs. Obama's conversation about health and wellness. And it seems like everyone has joined, whether they're lauding Let's Move!, or criticizing it, or debating how to improve it, or tweaking their own project to match Mrs. Obama's. After a year of focusing a spotlight on the issues, the First Lady's "broader base" of participants is now enormous. She's taken the message to communities and Congress, to food and beverage corporations and public health advocates, to school food makers and parenting groups and consumer groups. To soccer-crazy kids, and professional athletes. To entertainment companies and technology innovators, to mayors and governors, and world leaders. And of course, and most importantly, to the hundreds of other kids who have toured the garden (more than 500, by the last East Wing estimate), and the hundreds more with whom Mrs. Obama has visited. The Kitchen Garden is also clearly visible to the thousands of people who show up every week to get that iconic South Lawn glimpse of the White House from outside the fence. The response has been "magnificent," as Mrs. Obama noted on Wednesday, during a Newsweek forum about the campaign. She's gotten pledges of support from an incredibly broad array of stakeholders. (Above: President Obama and Press Secretary Robert Gibbs watch Mrs. Obama breaking ground for the Kitchen Garden on TV in Gibbs' office)

The First Lady's "broader base" is also truly global after a year. She's been credited with a boost in seed sales, and a renewed interest in home gardening, in America and abroad. There have been replica Kitchen Gardens in foreign lands, and here at home. The global interest actually began the day after the groundbreaking, when a photo of Mrs. Obama and her garden rake were above the fold on the print editions of both the New York Times and the Washington Post, as well as in every foreign media outlet. The Kitchen Garden is the first thing Mrs. Obama is asked about when she goes abroad, she's said. (Above: During the Fall Harvest, Mrs. Obama with Bancroft kids and Food Initiative Coordinator Sam Kass, who oversees the Kitchen Garden)

Gleaning the mainstream...
Of course food itself had a big audience before Mrs. Obama and her Kitchen Garden, which the huge number of foodie websites, blogs, publications and TV shows attest to. But the idea of food and health policy as a single, interrelated subject was not going on before the groundbreaking. The mainstreaming is in part thanks to the tireless efforts of Mrs. Obama's East Wing communications team, who have done a crackerjack job of ensuring that the message gets out without the kind of "food elitism" that was, pre-Obama era, attached to discussions of "good food." The Kitchen Garden--and Mrs. Obama, and the White House chefs--have been on two very, very popular prime time TV shows, Iron Chef America and The Biggest Loser, as well as on The Martha Stewart Show, the Today show, and Huckabee, among others. All have also been all over print media and the internet, too, and not solely in food outlets (Mrs. Obama and her campaign are the cover story on Newsweek this week). Entertainment conglomerates, like Nickelodeon and Disney, have also been utilized, as have high-profile athletes, from Olympians through the NFL. The East Wing team has made sure it's understood that Mrs. Obama's campaign is for everyone. (Above: Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses and Executive Chef Cris Comerford with Martha Stewart during a special President's Day episode; they discussed the Kitchen Garden and healthy eating while demoing recipes. Martha's audience is the heart of mainstream America...)

Suddenly, Congress seems to be moving faster....
Today, even the vast intractable behemoth that is Congress seems to have sped up to boost Mrs. Obama's project; lawmakers are nothing if not reactive to what is perceived as a broad base of support. Improving foods served in schools is one of the pillars of Let's Move!, and just in the last few weeks, eight different bills that support Mrs. Obama's efforts have been introduced in the House and Senate. On Thursday, Congressional leaders announced that they now have an overwhelming coalition that supports new nutrition standards for school foods, with an agreement that the Dietary Guidelines for America will be adopted as a universal standard. Sounds like a no brainer, but it's not. Nutrition standards for schools haven't changed in thirty years, and are very narrow. There's no doubt that the consciousness-raising project that is the Kitchen Garden/Let's Move! has led to the consciousness raising on the Hill. (Above: The Kitchen Garden in full glory in the Fall, minutes before it was harvested)

A year after the groundbreaking, Mrs. Obama's conversation is not only mainstream, but it also often seems like the single conversation that the culture must continue to have to advance our ideas about what it means to live in a civil American society, based on the principles that were critical to the Founding. There's no life, no liberty, no pursuit of happiness if you're too sick from the food you eat to do all that that implies. The national conversation is also about personal and corporate responsibility, about self determination and family. And it's also a conversation about faith and the future; all gardening is an act of faith, with an eye to the future. Let's Move! is, too.

Of course the White House Beehive has to be mentioned as a critical element of the Kitchen Garden project, too, and it has also inspired international interest. Before the bees went dormant for the winter, they'd produced 140 pounds of honey, which has been used in dishes for all kinds of White House events, including the State Dinner. Honey was used to make the White House Gingerbread House at Christmas, and it was the centerpiece of Mrs. Obama's special ceremonial gift to G20 spouses, when she made her debut as an international hostess during the Pittsburgh Summit. The beehive, too, shines a spotlight on health and nutrition; it stands as the visible alternative to processed sugar and high fructose corn syrup. The beehive is also a symbol of sweetness, of a return to old ways. Of hard work, and waiting, and again, faith. Give the bees a home, and they'll do their thing.

Mrs. Obama has given our national conversation about food and health the biggest, most high-profile home in the land, with the Kitchen Garden at its center. It's a long way from March 20, 2009, to March 20, 2010...and yet it's something of a homecoming, too.

The Kitchen Garden today...
Above: The Kitchen Garden this week. It weathered the most difficult Washington winter in a century, with three record-breaking snowstorms collectively dumping more than three feet of snow on the city. But the garden was protected by hoop houses, and the cover crop of Rye that was planted in early December managed to thrive, too. The hoop houses are now gone; in the photo, the silver frames still remain, but the covering fabric has been removed. It's almost balmy in Washington right now, and currently there are turnips, arugula, and winter lettuces growing in the Kitchen Garden. The date for the 2010 Spring planting will be announced shortly, according to an East Wing spokesperson.

Since the ground breaking, the Kitchen Garden has produced more than 1,500 pounds of crops. 55 different varieties of vegetables and berries were originally planted last Spring, with a succession of new crops added in through late summer. In addition to White House use, the produce is also donated to Miriam's Kitchen, a local social services agency. There have been two official harvest events, one for Spring and one for Fall. Mrs. Obama and Sam Kass tell the story of the garden in this White House video:

Video messaging from the White House has also, of course, boosted the mainstreaming of the campaign, too. Seven different Let's Move! videos have been posted on the official White House website.

*Photos: Mrs. Obama breaking ground by Joyce Boghosian/White House. President Obama photo by Pete Souza/White House. Garden now, bee hive, Fall Harvest photos by Obama Foodorama. "Icon" photo of Mrs. Obama by Getty. Martha Stewart photo courtesy The Martha Stewart Show.