Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Let's Plant: Potatoes And Politics As First Lady Michelle Obama Preps Kitchen Garden For Spring

On the heels of school lunch battle, the National Potato Council is thrilled that spuds are now growing at the White House; regional TV outlets invited to interview First Lady and her swing-state helpers...
Washington was gloriously sunny on Monday as First Lady Michelle Obama refurbished the White House Kitchen Garden for the fourth time since breaking ground in 2009 for the project she has hailed as "the most important achievement of my life." For the last Spring planting of President Obama's first term, Mrs. Obama was joined by the largest number of groups--six--that have ever participated at one time in a garden event: 31 kids selected from New York, Iowa, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and the District joined Mrs. Obama as she hit her crop rows in mid-afternoon. (Above: Planting Mustard Greens with helpers)

White House chefs including Executive Chef Cris Comerford, Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses and Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives Sam Kass were on hand, as was the First Lady's chief of staff, Tina Tchen.

Mrs. Obama arrived gardenside just after 2:15 PM, striding down from the residence as heavily armed security agents ducked into the surrounding trees and bushes to keep watch. The First Lady, greeted with cheers and applause, was clad in black slacks, a black cardigan, a "vintage" orange J. Crew t-shirt, and blue Superga low-tops, her hair rolled back. Minutes before, the guests had been put through a dress rehearsal for their planting duties by Kass. Clad in a chefs jacket and jeans, he stood to the side, beaming, as Mrs. Obama welcomed all.

"Yay! It's so exciting!" Mrs. Obama said. The garden, she explained, is part of her Let's Move! campaign, and "an important way to have a good conversation about your health."

Although building supermarkets in areas identified as food deserts is a pillar of the Let's Move! campaign, Mrs. Obama expressed little faith in store-bought crops.

"A lot of times when you grow your own vegetables and fruits, they taste really good," Mrs. Obama said. "They taste better than a lot of stuff you’ll get in a grocery store -- trust me."

She kicked off the action simply: "Let's plant!"

Potatoes and controversy...
Cold-season crops were the order for the day, in case of late frost: Before an hour had passed, Mrs. Obama and her crew had installed spinach, lettuces, radish, bok choy, broccoli, chard, rappini, carrots, and onions in the boxed beds in the 1,500 square-foot garden. Mrs. Obama personally planted Mustard Greens--"Southern Giant Curled"--and Dill seed, and five varieties of potatoes, which was something of an historic and controversial moment. (Above: Mrs. Obama slices seed potatoes with helpers)

"These are the first potatoes we've had," Mrs. Obama told her three Girl Scout helpers, who came from Troop 60325 in Fairport, NY. "I can't wait to see what happens."

Mrs. Obama knelt and sliced seed potatoes in half, handing these to the Scouts, who dug them into a boxed bed at the front of the garden, situated directly in front of the huge crowd of media covering the event. The varieties included red Sangre, purple fingerlings from Peru called Purple Sion; Mountain Rose, Red Thumb and Canela Russet. Controversy: Last year, Congress passed a law mandating that servings of white potatoes and other starchy vegetables could not be restricted under the US Department of Agriculture's upgraded nutritional guidelines for the National School Lunch Program, legislation Mrs. Obama vocally championed.

The measure followed an aggressive PR campaign from potato state lawmakers and the National Potato Council (NPC), which included a special website and a petition urging Congress to keep spuds on lunchtrays; USDA wanted to restrict servings to make more room on menus for other vegetables. An East Wing spokesman said the First Lady's potato planting had nothing to do with the controversy, though previously only Sweet Potatoes were grown in the Kitchen Garden. (Above: Bed markers for two kinds of potato varieties)

Still, Mrs. Obama had hardly finished planting when the National Potato Council issued a press release, alerted through social media that their product was front and center in the White House garden: "America's potato growers are excited the first lady is helping educate children that healthy eating includes nutrient-rich potatoes," said NPC Executive Vice President and CEO John Keeling.

For their school lunch campaign, the NPC had made much of Mrs. Obama's declaration that French fries are her favorite food. She'll have heady gourmet fries when the new potatoes come in.

Mrs. Obama and her helpers were of course unaware of any controversy as they continued on with young Mustard Greens, and scattered Dill seed. The First Lady poured the seeds into the kids' hands, and watched as they worked these into the dirt. (Above: With Kass and helpers by a Dill bed)

"If we don't get a ton of dill from that, I'll be surprised," Mrs. Obama said.

She chatted easily with the girls as they worked; ages 10 and 11, they quizzed Mrs. Obama about daughters Malia, 13, and Sasha, 10. Mrs. Obama admitted that getting both to enjoy their vegetables has sometimes been a challenge.

Swing state helpers...and special TV interviews with Mrs. Obama...
Politics were in the air for reasons other than potatoes, too: Some of the invited kids just happen to be from battleground states critical for President Obama's 2012 re-election: Iowa (students from Mitchell Elementary School in Ames); North Carolina (Sumner Elementary in Greensboro); and Pennsylvania (Stetser Elementary in Chester). They were accompanied on their White House visit by local-market TV crews from their home states. (Above: The First Lady pours Dill seed into the hands of a helper)

The Let's Move! campaign, which now has a huge national audience, has been a terrific way to spread President Obama's message about "winning the future," and revitalizing communities. The White House has previously invited local TV stations to visit for "media days" for the President, and the crews on hand for Monday's planting were given the rare opportunity to interview the First Lady. --Rare for local outlets; Mrs. Obama has become an almost weekly staple on the talk show circuit as the 2012 Campaign has ramped up. There's more to come shortly, when she appears in NBC's The Biggest Loser, in scenes filmed at the White House.

Mrs. Obama's second anniversary tour for the campaign in February also included stops in battleground states: She kicked off the tour in Des Moines, Iowa, and had four different events in Florida. The East Wing said the children were invited to the White House because they'd written to the First Lady about their own healthy eating projects, including school gardens.

"You guys wrote some really nice letters telling us about stories of the work that you're doing in your schools, in your communities," Mrs. Obama said as she welcomed the kids.

Junior gardeners from DC's Bancroft and Harriet Tubman Elementary Schools also helped. The two schools have previously supplied students to work in the Kitchen Garden, and Tubman has been adopted by the White House chefs as part of the Chefs Move to Schools program.

An international garden...
The Kitchen garden contains two beds that pay homage to President Thomas Jefferson's kitchen garden at his plantation home of Monticello, located in Albemarle County, VA. Peter J. Hatch (l) the master gardener who oversees it, and who ran the decades-long historic re-build, brought a wide variety of starter plants for the Kitchen Garden, as he has each year since 2009. Hatch and his wife Lou brought Brown Dutch and Tennis Ball lettuce, Sea Kale, Brussels Sprouts, and Caracalla and tree onions. These are also called "walking onions," Hatch said, because bulbs grow at the top and the bottom, and the top bulbs fall over and re-plant themselves in the earth.

"Brown Dutch and Tennis Ball were Jefferson's favorite lettuces," Hatch said. The Sea Kale, he said, is an heirloom British variety, grown in seaside areas, and relatively rare.

"Jefferson harvested it early, and prepared it like asparagus shoots," Hatch said.

With this Spring planting, Mrs. Obama's garden is very international, Hatch added: The five varieties of potatoes are the only crop that originate in the New World, the only vegetables that weren't originally imported from Europe and other continents. Yale University Press has just published Hatch's beautiful new book about Jefferson's garden, A Rich Spot of Earth, and it includes descriptions of his work with Mrs. Obama.

The Kitchen Garden, while not certified organic, does not use synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. The soil is "seething with life," Hatch said, rich with earthworms and beneficial insects. A special composter, called a biocycler, sits at the back of the garden, and food scraps from the kitchen are used. (Above: A long view of the planting action)

After forty minutes of planting, Mrs. Obama and her helpers were done. As she gathered the kids for farewells, she autographed the shoulders of their t-shirts before handing out hugs.

Mrs. Obama's forthcoming book about her garden, American Grown, will be published at the end of May. A combination Kitchen Garden memoir and how-to guide, the $30 hardcover will include instructions for all kinds of gardens, from windowsill herb gardens to back-yard plots. Though Mrs. Obama has been encouraging gardening for three years, the White House has never put out its own set of instructions on how citizens can participate. The book will include recipes, too. (The book jacket, above)

CLICK HERE for links to all posts about the event. The transcript of Mrs. Obama's remarks.

*Photos by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama; book jacket photo courtesy of Crown Publishing Group