Friday, January 17, 2014

For First Lady Michelle Obama's 50th Birthday: A White House Kitchen Garden Photo Album

The President and Mrs. Obama, holding a gift of gardening gloves
50 and agrifabulous: 17 photos from Mrs. Obama's legacy initiative...
Washington, DC - Over the last five years I have taken literally thousands of photographs of First Lady Michelle Obama at work in her now world-famous White House Kitchen Garden.  In honor of her milestone 50th birthday today, here are a selection of 17 favorites, with background commentary. 

I have yet to photograph President Barack Obama with his wife in the crop rows, but the photo above is among my favorites.  It was taken on June 3, 2011, a few hours after Mrs. Obama welcomed American Indian children for a combination harvest/planting in the Kitchen Garden. 

As the President stepped off Marine One on the South Lawn returning from a day trip to Ohio, he presented his wife with two new pairs of gardening gloves, purchased at a family owned Toledo hardware store where he'd made a "surprise" visit.  Mrs. Obama clutched the gloves as they walked together, smiling as if her husband had offered a lovely piece of jewelry.  She's used the gloves at every gardening event since. 

The cover of Mrs. Obama's first book
Designed to be a teaching garden for schoolchildren--who are center stage at plantings and harvests--the Kitchen Garden is the most identifiable symbol for Mrs. Obama's legacy initiative, Let's Move!, and has become a living object lesson for the nation.  The history of the first few years are recorded in another milestone for Mrs. Obama's first half century:  In 2012, she published her first book, American Grown:  The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America.  

Less than a month from now, the First Lady will mark yet another milestone when the Let's Move! campaign enters its fifth year on Feb. 9th.  The first seeds that were sown in the dirt of the historic South Lawn have now grown into a huge campaign that is daily impacting millions of Americans. 

Here's a virtual, visual toast to another fifty years for the First Lady, and to plenty more stories.

The March, 2009 groundbreaking for the now 1,500-square foot organic plot came just weeks after the President and Mrs. Obama moved into the White House, and seemed to indicate there was More to Come from the Princeton-educated, Harvard-trained lawyer who blossomed from Chicago's South Side.  There was much more to come: Mrs. Obama has credited her glorious vegetable patch with being the inspiration for Let's Move!.  As noted above, children have been helpers at every event, as these Girl Scouts were during the Spring 2012 planting.  Mrs. Obama and Let's Move! Executive Director Sam Kass chatted about the wonders of herbs with the girls after installing young crops.


When hosting the first-ever White House Convening on Food Marketing to Children last Fall, Mrs. Obama declared that America is in the midst of a "transformative" period in terms of healthy eating and physical fitness, and indeed it seems to be.  The simple act of planting young spinach--as Mrs. Obama did at the 2011 Spring planting--has been a crucial part of raising America's consciousness on a host of issues that were previously the purview of academics, health advocates, medical professionals--and well-educated (and well-heeled) food activists.  Mrs. Obama has been deservedly credited with an uptick in home and school gardens since becoming the nation's most famous gardener, and she's tuned the concepts of improved "food access" and "food affordability" into headline-makers.


The President will host a dance-themed birthday party for Mrs. Obama on Saturday night.  An excellent dancer, Mrs. Obama has boogied her way through Let's Move! events, and has even danced in the Kitchen Garden.  At the Spring planting in April, 2010, Mrs. Obama did a "fertility" dance around a bed with newly planted rhubarb seeds.  Joined by kids and Kass--who could use a couple lessons from his boss--Mrs. Obama shimmied round and round the boxed bed, chanting "Grow, rhubarb, grow!"    

There was chanting of a different kind at Mrs. Obama's "Three Sisters" planting and harvest in June of 2011 when she welcomed American Indian children to the garden.  Jefferson Keel, President of the National Congress of American Indians, above in red, said a blessing before Mrs. Obama and the kids planted new crops, using Native American growing techniques in the garden for the first time.  "We always go to the Creator prior to planting," Keel explained before asking for blessings for Mrs. Obama and the First Family, the seeds that were about to be planted, the earth, and the men and women in the Armed Forces.  Mrs. Obama and the group are planting corn in the photo.  
Foreign dignitaries and Heads of State have had private tours of the Kitchen Garden, and celebrities have joined Mrs. Obama for plantings and harvest.  Celebrity chefs, that is.  For the first time in the garden's history during the Fall Harvest in October of 2013, fuzzy celebs joined Mrs. Obama: Muppets Elmo and Rosita cracked cute in the crop rows as Mrs. Obama and the kids worked.  The duo and all their Sesame Street pals will soon be promoting fruits and vegetables in America's grocery stores as part of an unprecedented two-year deal for the Let's Move! campaign, which offers free use of the licensed Sesame Workshop characters to members of the produce industry.  It's one of more than 65 partnerships that have been created to date for the Let's Move! campaign.
The Kitchen Garden has now grown "thousands and thousands" of pounds of crops, says Kass.  About one third of the output is donated annually to Miriam's Kitchen, a social services organization that offers daily, freshly cooked healthy meals to the needy.  Miriam's head chef Steve Badt is in the background at left in this photo of Mrs. Obama, Kass and kids digging up giant sweet potatoes at the Fall 2010 harvest.  Some of the sweet potatoes--a favorite of President Obama's, the First Lady said--weighed four pounds each.

Mrs. Obama championed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act 2010 as it moved through Congress, and it is the legislative centerpiece of Let's Move!.  The measure offered a sweeping upgrade to nutritional standards for the National School Lunch Program, including requiring more whole grain on menus.  During the Spring 2013 planting, Mrs. Obama spotlighted grain, planting the first-ever wheat in her garden, carefully poking the tiny seeds into the ground with two helpers.  The seeds were organic "experimental" varieties, "Club" and "Bread," said Kass.  The wheat "grew like gangbusters," said Mrs. Obama, and was harvested in July of the same year.

Chefs were already the rockstars of the food world when Mrs. Obama formally launched Let's Move! in February 2010, and she asked them to literally serve their country and join her campaign.  She's gotten the support of chefs who are household names:  Rachael Ray, Tom Colicchio, Mario Batali, Jacques Pepin, and Emeril Lagasse have all visited the White House.  New York-based chef Marcus Samuelsson, hugging Mrs. Obama in this photo from a special harvest in July of 2010, not only joined Let's Move!, but was the first guest chef in history to cook a State Dinner, joining the White House chefs to create the menu for President and Mrs. Obama's first gala in 2009, honoring then-President Felipe Calderon of Mexico. The harvest was part of the launch for Chefs Move to Schools, a Let's Move! component that weds professional chefs with public schools to enhance nutrition initiatives.  Thousands of chefs are now participating.
DC's most acclaimed chef, the globally famous José Andres, above at left, also joined Mrs. Obama at the Chef's Move! harvest in July of 2010.  He has been a repeat guest chef at the White House, and a vocal Let's Move! advocate, becoming a major public activist on food initiatives in the last five years and speaking in support of healthy eating and sustainable agriculture production.  Andres was plucking broccoli when the photo was taken, which was an unheard-of vegetable for many of the kids at the harvest.  As a side note, the day of the event was blisteringly hot, though everyone in the photos looks as cool as cucumbers.
Gardening becomes a decorative art if you don't know how to cook, and Mrs. Obama's harvests and plantings have featured gardenside cooking lessons for the children, using the vegetables just plucked from the ground.  At the Summer harvest in May of 2013, Mrs. Obama and Executive Chef Cris Comerford explained fennel to two youngsters, encouraging them to smell the unfamiliar, fragrant vegetable.  The dish of the day was Grilled Garden Pizza, starring the fennel, an unlikely choice for kids' pizza.  But the youngsters gobbled it up, seated with Mrs. Obama at picnic tables around the garden.  The recipe is on the site sidebar.
Elmo and Rosita also got in on the gardenside cooking action with Mrs. Obama, Kass, and the kids at the 2013 Fall harvest.  The Muppets wore chefs' hats and aprons as they "helped" the First Lady compose Grilled Turkey Flatbread Sandwiches with Kitchen Garden Salad.  Of course the greens had just come from the garden.  The recipe is on the site sidebar.
The entire White House kitchen staff does double duty as Let's Move! ambassadors, speaking to children at schools, creating educational videos, speaking at policy conferences, and performing live cooking demonstrations in addition to their Presidential culinary assignments.  They are clearly devoted to Mrs. Obama, and the feeling is returned.  At the Spring 2013 planting, Mrs. Obama hugged her chefs--and her Chief Usher--one by one as they stood by a newly planted bed of sea kale.  From L, Assistant Pastry Chef Susie Morrison, Assistant Chef Margie Fineran, Comerford, Chief Usher Angella Reid, and Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses.  Yosses and Morrison lead the weekly crew of volunteers who help the National Park Service gardeners maintain the garden.  As a side note, Reid, appointed by President Obama, is the first woman Chief Usher in White House history, and only the second African American to hold the post.
Despite the swirl of chefs, butlers and aides working at the 2013 Fall harvest, Mrs. Obama took it upon herself to protect the waiting picnic lunch when she noticed bees from the nearby beehive buzzing around the food.  The table was far from the giant scrum of media covering the event, and in a moment not created for the cameras, Mrs. Obama slipped away from the gardenside crowd without being noticed, and went over to cover the plates with paper napkins.  Muppets Elmo and Rosita were at that moment noisily regaling the crowd with jokes, and few people noticed the Mom in Chief saving lunch.
It's become a tradition for Mrs. Obama to autograph the shirts of her young garden helpers.  But at the Spring 2013 planting, she also autographed shirts for adults.  Mixing her other legacy initiative, Joining Forces, with Let's Move!, Mrs. Obama invited members of Archi's Acres to help in the garden.  The California-based group created the Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training program, an intensive six-week course that teaches retired members of the military ag skills so they can transition to civilian employment.  Co-founder Karen Archipley was thrilled as Mrs. Obama autographed her shirt while Kass looked on.
Mrs. Obama ends all her garden events with a group photo, and plenty of hugs for her young helpers.  Elmo and Rosita were of course part of the group photo at the 2013 Fall harvest.  Mrs. Obama's helpers were from DC's Bancroft and Harriet Tubman Elementary Schools, and from Magnolia Elementary School in Joppa, MD; Linwood Holton Elementary School in Richmond, VA; and North Elementary School in Morgantown, WV.
As for the First Lady's gardening gloves that began this birthday trip down the "50 and fabulous" memory lane:  Sam Kass keeps them safe when Mrs. Obama isn't using them...
*Photos by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama; American Grown jacket cover photo courtesy of Crown Publishing, Inc.