Though summer doesn't officially start for weeks, First Lady Michelle Obama hosted a "summer harvest" in her Kitchen Garden on Tuesday afternoon, joined by school children invited from four states and DC for crop-pulling and a garden-side cooking lesson. The First Lady's special guests were kids from two New Jersey communities battered by Hurricane Sandy last October; President Obama was simultaneously surveying recovery efforts at the Jersey shore. (Above, plucking radishes with helpers)
Clad in a pale green gingham check button down shirt over a yellow T, blue jeans, and mustard-yellow Converse All Stars, Mrs. Obama channeled a chic urban farmer as she welcomed the youngsters.
"Isn't it amazing?!!" Mrs. Obama said of her South Lawn vegucation project as she arrived at 1:20 PM to cheers and applause from the kids. "This is fantastic."
It is indeed fantastic. During April's Spring planting, Mrs. Obama and helpers installed more than thirty varieties of organic crops, including many heirlooms, and the rust-colored boxed beds in the 1,500 square-foot garden are now bursting with mature greens and herb blossoms. The weather was perfect for a harvest: Sunny but not too sunny, with a nice bit of cloud cover and the temperature in the balmy mid-80s.
Some of the First Lady's April helpers were invited back for Tuesday's harvest so they could "see the fruits of their labors," the East Wing said, but the Jersey kids were the guests of honor, thanks to being impacted by Hurricane Sandy.
"Today the President, he left me to go to your state to visit with your Governor," Mrs. Obama explained to the kids. "And we thought, well, since he’s going to be there, wouldn’t it be good to have some schools from New Jersey here with us."
The invited students from Union Beach Memorial School in Union Beach and Long Beach Island Grade School in Ship Bottom have been attending classes at sister schools as their own schools and communities are rebuilt from heavy storm damage.
"But despite that, you guys are still going to school every day, and you’re working on eating healthy, right?" Mrs. Obama said.
"And it hasn’t been that easy, but you guys have managed to get through the school year way on top of the game, and we’re just very proud of you. It's good to have you here."
Each visiting school got a mention from the First Lady: The fourth and fifth graders returning from the April planting were from Arthur D. Healey School in Somerville, MA; Milton Elementary School in Milton, VT; Sarah Moore Greene Magnet Technology Academy in Knox County, TN; and Harriet Tubman Elementary and Bancroft Elementary in Washington, DC (White House bios for the schools are here).
The wheat is "growing like gangbusters"...
Mrs. Obama's new crop addition during her April planting was wheat--two "experimental varieties" of 'Bread' and 'Club' wheat grown by "a breeder who was breeding new varieties," according to Let's Move! Executive Director Sam Kass, who dashed about the garden in a black t-shirt emblazoned with the Lets Move! logo.
The first grain to ever be sown in the Kitchen Garden, the wheat has been thriving. It is now a little more than two feet tall, and still isn't ready to be harvested. But Mrs. Obama gave her crop a shout-out. (Above, the wheat is in the foreground as Mrs. Obama, Kass and helpers pluck lettuce)
"I want to highlight the wheat that we planted," Mrs. Obama said, pointing to the long bed on the southernmost side of the garden filled with green stalks.
"That first bed is our wheat, and it is growing like gangbusters," Mrs. Obama said. "So we may even have bread one day, our own White House bread."
And the President may have some homebrewed White House Wheat Beer, if Kass gets his way; that's just one idea the Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition Policy has for the harvested grain. The wheat will be ready "late July-ish," according to Kass.
Mrs. Obama concluded her remarks with a call to action. "Are you guys ready to work?" The kids shouted with excitement.
"All right, let’s move! Let’s move! We’re moving!"
The Kitchen Garden bounty includes six kinds of lettuce, four varieties of spinach, three varieties of potatoes, three kinds of berries, and two varieties each of kale, broccoli, Swiss chard and garlic, as well as radishes, arugula, tatsoi, kohlrabi, endive, collards, and herbs, among other delights (the Spring planting crop list). (Above, Mrs. Obama examines a 'French Breakfast' radish)
As the kids fanned out across the garden paired with the White House chefs, Mrs. Obama took her own helpers over to a bed of 'French Breakfast' radishes. She knelt and pulled up rosy specimens, and dusted off the dirt. She chatted with the kids as she worked with a spade, her hands unprotected by gloves.
Then it was on to lettuce; Mrs. Obama plucked the greens with another set of helpers. There are six kinds of lettuce in the garden: 'Paris White,' 'Spotted Aleppo,''Chadwick's Rodan,' 'Butttercrunch,' 'Rhazes, and 'Amish Deer Tongue.' The First Lady also plucked some garlic--'Eric's German White' and 'Samarkand' are growing. Then it was time for a quick cooking lesson.
Executive Chef Cris Comerford and Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses were gathered with their teams on the side of the garden, with well-appointed, white-clothed prep tables and a deep charcoal grill. (Above, Mrs. Obama and Comerford introduce a student to fennel)
"We’re going to actually get to eat what we harvest today," Mrs. Obama said.
The First Lady and the students joined the chefs, who showed the kids how to slice and dice the newly plucked vegetables, which were destined for grilled flatbread pizzas, laden with fennel, Swiss chard, and broccoli. UPDATE: CLICK HERE for the recipe.
"Careful!" Mrs. Obama warned one young helper as she chopped fresh fennel and radishes with a long knife. "We don't want any sliced fingers."
Re-imagining pizza as a healthy, veggie-laden food is a signature for Mrs. Obama; kids visiting for the Fall 2011 garden harvest got garden-side cooking lessons with pizza, too. Mrs. Obama even fed White House pizza to the self-proclaimed veggie-hater Jay Leno during an appearance on his talk show in January of 2012, though after taking a bite, Leno quipped "it would be better with sausage and pepperoni." (Above, Tuesday's pizza)
Leno sampled Chef Comerford's Garden Vegetable Pizza; there's also a White House recipe for her Grilled Garden Pizza, similar to what the kids made on Tuesday.
The cooking lesson finished, Mrs. Obama and the kids sat down at picnic tables covered with red and white checked cloths to enjoy their feast, served with a salad that included newly plucked peas, too (above). There was even dessert: Healthy oat and fruit cookies. "Water is the best drink," Kass was heard advising the kids. Bowls of shiny red apples were the centerpieces on the tables.
Unlike Leno, the kids loved the pizza, and gobbled it down.
"This is the best pizza ever!" more than one child was heard to exclaim.
Mrs. Obama handed out many hugs before departing as the event ended. With waves, she headed up the South Lawn and back to the White House, trailed by her Secret Service agents.
But there was one more treat in store for the First Lady's hard-working helpers. Standing at the top of the South Lawn, the students got to watch President Obama's dramatic return from New Jersey aboard Marine One. The wind-blown landing of the presidential chopper is always an impressive sight.
"The kids who harvested got to see Marine 1 land. They were super excited and POTUS shook each one of their hands!" was tweeted on the @LetsMove account with the photo, above.
The Kitchen Garden has produced "thousands of pounds" of crops since Mrs. Obama first planted it in April of 2009, according to Kass.
The crops are used for First Family meals, for State Dinners and other important social events, and about one third of the produce is donated to Miriam's Kitchen, a DC social services agency that provides daily healthy meals for homeless citizens.
Honey from the beehive that sits near the garden is also donated to Miriam's Kitchen. It is the first beehive to be on White House grounds. (Above, Mrs. Obama and her helpers pose with the harvested crops)
CLICK HERE for links to all Kitchen Garden posts, and check out the Let's Move! gardening guide.
*The transcript of Mrs. Obama's remarks.
*Photos by Brendan Hoffman/Prime for Obama Foodorama; Marine One photo by Let's Move!