Three things happened this week that made me decide to write about the White House Kitchen Garden. (I had been planning to wait until the Obamas were just about to leave the White House, but now feels like the time.)
First, Michelle Obama dedicated the garden this week, speaking about its far-reaching effects. Then Facebook's "On This Day" feature reminded me that it was five years ago this week that I went to the White House as a guest of the first lady and her Let's Move initiative for the first White House Tweetup. That day, I watched Mrs. Obama participate in the harvest with some students and then looked on as she and the students shared a meal.
Finally, Burpee announced a $2.5-million gift to establish a permanent White House Kitchen Garden to maintain and further develop what the first lady started. The gift will be made to the National Park Foundation over a 17-year period to cover the cost of expanding and maintaining the garden.
Now it's clear the White House Kitchen Garden will continue to exist long after the Obamas pack up and leave 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., and it's a good moment to write a tribute.
Here are 10 things I've loved about the garden over the years:
- The garden is organic. The first 55 varieties of plants that went into the garden were organic, and the garden has been cared for using organic methods.
- The Obama family, particularly the first lady, has been hands-on. The first family helped dig the original plot on the White House lawn, and Mrs. Obama has regularly helped with harvests, inviting children from local schools to help her pick vegetables and dig up potatoes.
- Inspired by the garden, the White House established a farmers market just outside its gates. On Thursdays from 11-2 from early April through mid-November, the market is there, encouraging people to eat fresh, good food. SNAP/Food Stamps and WIC/Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program benefits are accepted, and the market matches them with free matching dollars. The market doesn't sell produce from the White House Kitchen garden, but it's a further indication that this administration thinks healthy food should be available to all.
- The garden takes the concept of heirloom seeds literally. Some of the seeds used in the garden were passed down from Thomas Jefferson's Monticello garden. The garden may be new, but it has history sewn into it.
- The garden produces year-round and is used as an educational tool to show others how they can grow food, even in the winter. The hoop houses naturally keep warmth in the ground to help some cold-hardy crops grow, and they also inspire gardeners and farmers to use similar hoop systems — another additional way to build local and regional food systems.
- The garden opened the door for some other sustainable firsts at the White House, including beekeeping, a compost system and a pollinator garden.
- Another notable first came about because of the garden: the first beer brewed at the White House. Interest in The White House Honey Ale became so great that a petition was started to release the "secret" recipe, and so the White House did.
- The bounty from the garden is shared with those in need in the local community. A third of the food grown in the garden is donated to Miriam's Kitchen, a Washington, D.C., organization that feeds the homeless.
- The garden was an important part of the Let's Move initiative, a way to show that Mrs. Obama practiced what she preached. As the first lady said in her speech when she dedicated the garden earlier this week, the garden played a big part in beginning to change the way our whole country eats, leading the way for fast-food restaurants to offer healthier foods, food companies to offer smaller, lower-calorie versions of snacks, and obesity rates to stop rising. We still have a long way to go as a nation when it comes to eating habits, but the planting of the garden was the starting point of a conversation that needed to happen.
- The opportunity for city students to go to the White House, get their hands dirty in the garden, share a meal with the first lady, and perhaps get inspired to grow their own food is invaluable. What struck me the most when I watched the harvest on that fall day five years ago was how Mrs. Obama interacted with the kids. She was having fun and they were feeling the genuine interest and love that this very powerful woman had for them. I consider the experience I had that day to be one of the top moments of my journalistic career, and I imagine many students who have been to the garden will consider it one of the best experiences of their lives. The garden surely made an impression on those students, and its existence has made a difference for kids all around the country, with access to better food education.
The garden will live on for at least another 17 years, but I can't imagine that it will be exactly the same after the Obamas leave the White House. And that's OK. The real beauty of any garden is that it changes with the times.
Inset photo of Michelle Obama and Bo, the first dog: Lawrence Jackson, official White House photographer/Wikimedia Commons