Published on
the Chicago Tribune

Obamas Ready to Start a White House Garden

Rebecca Cole

U.S. first lady Michelle Obama joins White House assistant chef Sam Kass (L) and 5th grade students from the Bancroft Elementary School during a groundbreaking ceremony for the new White House Kitchen Garden in Washington, March 20, 2009. The garden will grow about 25 varieties of fruits and vegetables which will be harvested by the White House kitchen for consumption at the White House. (REUTERS/Jason Reed)

WASHINGTON - This year, the vegetables served at the White House will be as locally grown as possible--right on the South Lawn.

After a campaign by gardeners and sustainable food activists, the First Family has decided to dig up part of the White House grounds for a vegetable garden. In a ceremony Friday, First Lady Michelle Obama and local elementary school students will break ground for the project.

It's part of the first lady's promotion of healthy food for her daughters, Malia and Sasha, as well as for the nation. But like many parents, the Obamas have had mixed results: Michelle Obama recently said a version of "creamless" creamed spinach by White House executive chef Cristeta Comerford still was a bit too "green" for the kids.

More than 100,000 people asked the president to plant a garden on the White House lawn, according to Kitchen Gardeners International, a coalition of gardeners whose mission is to inspire and teach people to grow their own food. The group's Eat the View campaign to plant "high-impact gardens in high-profile places" specifically urged the First Family to plant an edible garden within the first 100 days of the Obama administration.

Launched in February 2008 and spearheaded by Roger Doiron, a gardener in Scarborough, Maine, the movement hoped to have the president's family set the right example in terms of healthy eating or "gardening for the greater good," as Doiron said.

"It begins at home," he said. "That's where we start. And if we get a number of people together carrying out these small actions it will speak volumes and add up." Since the early 1990s, food-activist pioneers such as Berkeley, Calif., restaurateur Alice Waters and author Michael Pollan have lobbied for an "edible landscape" across the 16 acres of White House grounds.

While the Clintons did have a small rooftop garden that grew vegetables and herbs and Laura Bush made sure organic foods were served in the residence, this is the first full-scale planting on the lawn in more than 60 years--since Eleanor Roosevelt had a Victory Garden during World War II.

"I'm just so gratified that this idea, that seemed as right as rain from the beginning," has finally taken hold, said Waters, owner of the renowned Chez Panisse.

"Food is precious. It comes from the land," she added. "And we have to take care of the land in order to nourish ourselves. It's very hard to talk about food without talking about the garden."

Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma," praised the Obamas for starting small. "The mistake gardeners make is starting out too ambitious," he said.

Responding to reports that the Obamas would be planting arugula, Pollan said he specifically warned the president against planting the leafy lettuce. "I said be careful about arugula or you'll be accused of elitism."

From his chilly corner of Maine, Doirer's small plot yielded $2,100 worth of produce from 35 different crops last year. The message, he said, is that even in these difficult economic times, when families are struggling monetarily and psychologically, people can find creative ways to put healthy food on their table.

"Even if families can start with something small this season they're going to come away feeling empowered," Doirer said. "There are things that we can do, even though we feel like we are up against incredible odds."

Waters said she was especially pleased that Michelle Obama chose to start the garden surrounded by children--a topic near and dear to her heart.

As a founder of The Edible Schoolyard, a program in Berkeley and now New Orleans to integrate organic gardens into schools, Waters wants children to learn that vegetables and fruit come from the ground, not a store.

"If we make a beautiful place that children can walk though on tours of the White House, we can broadcast that message around the world," Waters said. "It's such a beautiful picture. It's confirming and affirming their interest in the garden."

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