Veggies on the South Lawn

March 11, 2011 11:05 PM
Veggies on the South Lawn

Tucked along the perimeter of the exquisitely manicured South Lawn, the White House vegetable garden grows, lush with greenness and ripe with symbolism.

Established in 2009 at first lady Michelle Obama’s behest, the garden’s produce goes into the first family’s meals, as well as state dinners, with the surplus sent to a nearby soup kitchen. When breaking ground for it, Mrs. Obama said she hoped to use it to put more vegetables and fruits into her family’s meals, helping to eliminate processed and sugary foods.

As soon as word got around that she was considering such a move, it appeared the garden might become a battleground between organic food advocates and commercial producers who use pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Today, however, the garden falls into neither camp.

"We are not using synthetics, but it is not a certified organic garden," says Sam Kass, assistant chef and food initiative coordinator at the White House. "It is a way for the first lady to enter a broad discussion on health and food. Her goal is solving childhood obesity and eating healthy. She’s optimistic she will someday look back and see a shift in the health of kids and the nation."

Seeds from Jefferson. Except for a small garden Hillary Clinton tried to establish on the White House roof, this is the first attempt at White House gardening since Eleanor Roosevelt had a World War II victory garden planted in 1943. White House gardening dates back to the second president, John Adams, and his wife, Abigail, who decided to grow their own vegetables rather than buy them. Thomas Jefferson, our third president, planted trees but did little gardening at the White House. However, he had an elaborate vegetable garden at Monticello, his Charlottesville, Va., home.

Some of the vegetables in the White House garden today grew from seeds donated from Monticello garden, Kass points out, noting Jefferson’s interest in plants from around the world.
"Jefferson asked ambassadors to bring back seeds when they returned home. He also grew things seasonally, year-round, which we are trying to do."

Mrs. Obama’s garden started out at 1,100 sq. ft. of raised beds. In 2010, it expanded to 1,500 sq. ft. School-children from Washington, D.C., did much of the actual planting.

"That is important for kids in urban settings who have a lot of detachment from how food is produced. They have never seen what broccoli or peas look like while growing," Kass says.

Near the vegetable garden sits the first beehive ever at the White House. In 2009 it produced 134 lb. of honey, which was used in the kitchen and bottled as White House gifts.

"For kids, the beehive is a powerful educational moment. How do the bees pollinate? What does that mean? It shows how the bigger system works. It lets us talk about the current situation with bee-colony collapse and what is happening with that," Kass says.

Originally established for about $200, the garden produced more than 1,000 lb. of produce in 2009 and yields this past year were even better.

Who works in it? "We all chip in," Kass says. "The National Park Service helps with it. Volunteers also help. They come down one day a week and pull weeds and do whatever needs to be done.

You’d be surprised at some of the people you see working out here. At 8:30 on Tuesday mornings, you see a bunch of politicos in jeans digging in the garden. You also see kids here all the time. For me, it’s great. I leave all the politics behind and come down here, and it’s just another world."

He thinks the garden is accomplishing the first lady’s goals.

"It’s about celebrating where our food comes from. Nobody works harder than farmers. It’s a lot of work. We’re saying this is one way of growing food, out of many," Kass says.

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