Five days before her White House Kitchen Garden officially marks its fourth birthday on April 9th, First Lady Michelle Obama on a sunny but chilly Thursday afternoon welcomed thirty school children from Vermont, Florida, Massachusetts, Tennessee, and DC's Bancroft and Harriet Tubman elementary schools to her fifth annual Spring planting event. The big crop news of the day: For the first time ever, Mrs. Obama planted wheat, something Let's Move! Executive Director and assistant chef Sam Kass seems particularly excited about. (Above, Mrs. Obama and helpers planting seed)
Joined by two enthusiastic helpers, Kass and his boss poked Bread wheat and Club wheat seed into the dirt in a bed on the south side of the garden. It will be harvested in "July or August," Kass (l, planting seed) told Obama Foodorama. The wheat is being added to the garden to spotlight whole grain, Kass said, and will be used to make extra-special "homemade" breads and other dishes. When asked, Kass said the seed used is not genetically modified, and it is organic.
In fact, while President Obama has caused outrage among food activists by recently signing what's been dubbed the "Monsanto Protection Act," no food crops grown at the White House are GM. The full crop list.
"There aren't genetically modified crops in our garden," Kass said. Nor are there ever synthetic or chemical fertilizers or pesticides used, though the garden is not actually certified organic.
Mrs. Obama last had a planting party with kids in her Kitchen Garden more than a year ago for her Spring 2012 planting even, when potatoes were the headline-making new addition. There will be more new vegetables added this summer, Kass said, but he wouldn't specify: "I can't tell you all my secrets," he said, laughing.
The new wheat crop melded nicely with the theme of the day: There's a mandate for whole grain in the National School Lunch Program as part of the Agriculture Department's upgraded nutritional standards that went into effect last Fall. And the schools invited to join Mrs. Obama have each made what the White House calls "exceptional improvements" to their meal programs. A handful of parents and school nutrition pros were also at the event.
"You guys are here because you are doing such wonderful things to implement the new school nutrition standards at your school," Mrs. Obama said as she welcomed her guests to the world-famous veggie patch, clad in a yellow jersey top, a striped denim anorak, floral print jeans, and Converse sneakers.
The First Lady was the most high-profile champion for the legislation that provided the new standards, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act 2010, as it moved through Congress. With 32 million kids in the federal meal program, it's the legislative centerpiece of her child obesity campaign.
"So do you like your school lunches? They are healthy and they are good? And you're eating your vegetables?" Mrs. Obama asked. The kids gave her an enthusiastic chorus of "yes."
"And many of you have gardens of your own?" Mrs. Obama asked. Yes, again, with cheers.
And indeed, the kids proved they have been paying attention to their in-school gardening lessons. The Kitchen Garden had been largely stripped ahead of the 1:30 PM event, with seedlings and packets of seed laid atop the dirt-filled beds. But after Mrs. Obama and the kids fanned out through the beds, they planted the 1,500 square-foot plot with more than 30 varieties of organic vegetables in less than 25 minutes.
The planting, as always, featured heirloom varieties of vegetables, including five varieties of lettuce, three kinds of potatoes, four varieties of spinach, and two varieties of garlic, kale and Swiss chard. There was also arugula, tatsoi, kohlrabi, endive, collards, mustard, fennel, broccoli, cauliflower, broccoli rabe, peas, sea kale, chervil, shallot, spearmint, marjoram, oregano and three kinds of berries: Strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries. (Above, a long shot of the action)
A young apple tree, a Virginia Beauty, has also been newly planted on one side of the garden, but it is unlikely to fruit any time soon. The White House chefs, including Executive Chef Cris Comerford, Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses and Assistant Susie Morrison, as well as Chief Usher Angella Reid and grounds staff also helped with the planting.
Despite the kids' lightning planting speed, Mrs. Obama had plenty of time to chat with her helpers; the wheat planting duo were Ariana Docanto from Arthur D. Healey School in Somerville, MA., and Emilio Vega from Benjamin David Gullett Elementary School in Bradenton, FL. As they worked, the First Lady was overheard asking about their gardens and school lunches. She also talked about First Dog Bo.
"He doesn't dig in here," Mrs. Obama said, referring to her garden, and added "I come down here every almost every night."
Kass later explained that Mrs. Obama regularly walks Bo through the lush crop rows on summer evenings. But the Senior Policy Advisor ignored a reporter who asked if Mrs. Obama does any weeding during her twilight rambles on the South Lawn.
After planting the wheat, Mrs. Obama and a new pair of helpers moved on to plant 'Tyee' spinach seedlings. Fifth graders Kaila Bourne of Sarah Moore Greene Magnet Technology Academy, in Knoxville, TN. and Nolan Deep of Milton Elementary School in Milton,VT., joined the First Lady as she dug the little green plants into the dirt (above).
"See how fast you got this done?" Mrs. Obama asked the kids when they were finished.
"If you hear anyone talking about the White House Kitchen Garden this year, you say you did it."
Part of the First Lady's master plan with Let's Move! is to create peer-to-peer influence with children taking ownership of her campaign; she's been asking kids to be her ambassadors since she first launched the child obesity initiative in 2010. Both she and Kass say the best way to get kids interested in healthier eating and physical fitness is to "engage and involve the kids in the process," and after Thursday, Mrs. Obama had thirty more ambassadors to send into the world.
"I am so honored to be here," said fifth grader Kayla (no last name offered) from DC's Bancroft elementary school. "I am going to tell everyone about how important it is to eat healthy and garden." (Above, Mrs. Obama waters the wheat)
The junior ambassadors left the White House as potential record holders: Kass announced that they had accomplished the fastest-ever Spring planting in the garden's history.
"These kids are machines!" he exulted. But he backpedaled a little when the scrum of reporters covering the dirt fest jumped at the potential headline.
"I mean, you're probably going to go back and look at [old] tape and say 'they beat you by a minute,'" Kass said, laughing. "But they did a remarkable job. Almost too fast."
Archi's Acres and VSAT at the White House...
The kids weren't the only special guests: Colin and Karen Archipley, who own the organic Archi's Acres farm in Escondido, CA, also helped plant the garden. The couple married when Colin was serving as a rifleman in the Marine Corps. After her husband had three combat deployments in Iraq, Karen said she insisted her husband never deploy again, and they founded the farm, which grows avocados and hydroponic vegetables with a specially designed greenhouse operation that they are licensing around the US.
The couple also founded and runs the Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training (VSAT) program, which offers an intensive six-week program for transitioning service men and women so they can transfer the skills they acquired in the military to a career in the sustainable organic agriculture industry. Two of the graduates also helped plant the garden: Eric Boyd, who now owns his own organic farm San Luis Obispo, CA., as well as teaches Soil Science at Archi's Acres, and Mike Hanes, who now owns 'Forager Mike's Superfoods,' which specializes in hot sauce. (Above: Mrs. Obama with from l Kass, Hanes, Colin Archipley, Boyd, Karen Archipley)
More than 200 veterans have been trained since 2007, said Colin. The group will meet at the White House on Friday with officials from Veterans Affairs and USDA to discuss rolling out VSAT programs across the US, a process already started. With the federal government paying $1 million per military member in training before deployment, and a high unemployment rate among veterans, and a high percentage of America's farmers rapidly aging into retirement, the program is something America needs, said Karen.
As the planting event ended, Mrs. Obama took a group photo beside the garden with the whole gang, then signed each of her guests' t-shirts with a sharpie pen. She then doled out loads of hugs to the kids--and the vets--which seemed to last almost as long as the planting itself, and chatted with parents. And then she vanished back up to the White House.
Local TV reporters from outlets in the four states that sent students to the White House were also at the planting, by special invitation from the White House. Each outlet was granted the rare opportunity for a sit-down interview with Mrs. Obama, who discussed the key points of the Let's Move! campaign. This was also the case during Mrs. Obama's last public outing with media and invited guests in the garden, the 2012 Spring planting event, when her husband was in the midst of his reelection campaign. Students and reporters from key battleground states were invited, including Iowa, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania.
Thursday also had a media first for any gardening event Mrs. Obama has hosted: The visiting children were brought over to the media rope line before the event and allowed to be quizzed by the pack of reporters. At past events, they'd been off limits to media while at the White House. (Above, Mrs. Obama signing t-shirs)
But after all, there's no better way to deputize junior Let's Move! ambassadors than to invite them to the White House to rub elbows with America's most famous living gardener, and then give them a star turn on TV, too. Mission accomplished.
A White House video from the event:
*The transcript of the First Lady's remarks. The school bios provided by the White House are here. *Links to all Kitchen Garden posts.
Above, Mrs. Obama also hugged her staff after the planting. From left: Pastry Assistant Morrison, Exec. Chef Comerford, Chief Usher Reid, and Exec. Pastry Chef Yosses.
*Photos by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama