Mrs ‘O’, how does your garden grow?

By Arun Kumar, IANS
Sunday, October 31, 2010

WASHINGTON - When the Obamas come to Rashtrapati Bhavan on their India visit, US First Lady Michelle may like to exchange notes with President Pratibha Patil on the gardens in the backyards of their presidential mansions.

Michelle’s kitchen garden is much smaller than the herbal garden planted by Patil’s predecessor A.P.J. Abdul Kalam in the famed Mughal Gardens, but she loves to talk about what she calls “1,100 square feet of pure joy” on the South Lawns of the White House.

Barack Obama will be in India for four days, Nov 6-9.

Michelle planted her Kitchen Garden at the White House when their family paediatrician raised a flag that her daughters Malia and Sasha were gaining weight with so much eating out, snacking and quick, convenient meals just two months after the First Family moved into their new home.

After breaking ground March 20, 2009, together with a group of fifth-graders from a Washington elementary school, she launched last February ‘Let’s Move!’, a programme designed to end childhood obesity within a generation.

“This is an issue that can unite the country,” she said at the launch. “And it can unite us with the rest of the world, because the truth is there isn’t a single head of state or spouse of a head of state whom I have met who has not been fascinated by our garden.”

The White House Garden has inspired communities across the country to plant similar gardens at schools, in abandoned lots, and in community spaces, said Robin Schepper, executive director of the Let’s Move! Initiative, during a recent tour of the garden.

Michelle loves her garden so much that when she hosted the spouses of world leaders gathered for the UN session for a special luncheon at Blue Hill restaurant at Stone Barns Centre in New York in September, she presented each of her guests with a jar of pickled vegetables from the Kitchen Garden.

Then last week Michelle Obama swapped her statement necklace and simple frock for a casual ensemble to hit the White House Kitchen Garden. Donning a black and white printed blouse, a black jacket, black pants and boots, she picked pumpkins and other fall goodies with local students.

To date 1,600 lb of food have been harvested from the garden, said Sam Kass, White House assistant chef and senior policy adviser for Healthy Food Initiatives, who has tended the garden since its inception, holding the first pumpkin of the season.

Besides pumpkins, one can see heirloom tomatoes, chard, collards, black kale, purple peppers, eggplant and a little ‘herbal garden’ patch of cilantro and chives. Nearby are two bee hives tended by a White House carpenter who is also a beekeeper, that yielded 170 lb of honey last year.

But to get a taste of the goodies one needs to wangle an invitation to the White House or go to a soup kitchen.

For the garden’s over 50 varieties just feed the first family and are used for state dinners and presidential lunches and dinners. The soup kitchen gets about one-third of the harvest.

(Arun Kumar can be contacted at

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