Controversy, too, is harvest of White House garden

Michelle Obama's 'American Grown' hits bookstores this week

  • A woman reads US First Lady Michelle Obama's book "American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Gardens and Gardens Across America" in Washington on May 29, 2012.
A woman reads US First Lady Michelle Obama's book "American… (NICHOLAS KAMM, AFP/Getty…)
May 30, 2012|Susan Reimer

It was while she was serving dinner to her kids in 2008 and their dad was out campaigning for president, that Michelle Obama hatched a modest daydream: a vegetable garden on the White House grounds.

She'd recently had a conversation with her children's pediatrician about their eating habits, and the poor health of children he was seeing in his practice. It shook her up — he was treating obesity and diabetes in kids — and she resolved to make better food choices for her family.

She never said anything to Barack Obama about a vegetable garden (she told interviewers this week that she didn't want to jinx things with a "what if" question) until after they had moved into the presidential mansion.

But within a couple of months of the inauguration, she was planting seeds and seedlings with schoolchildren in a small L-shaped bed in the South Lawn, modestly screened from view of the official entrances but visible to tourists outside the fence.

Now she has written about the garden, which is much bigger, more ambitious and more productive after three years. There are winter crops and a beehive, a fig tree and a log growing mushrooms.

Her book is titled "American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America," and that's a picture of the first lady on the cover, wearing a blouse that matches the eggplant in her food basket.

There are only a couple of small pictures of the president in this book: one of him buying her a pair of gardening gloves she says are her favorite and one of him giving them to her after he disembarks from Marine One on the South Lawn. (An interesting tidbit from the book: The beehive is bolted down so it doesn't topple from the vibrations of the helicopter landing nearby.)

The harvest from the garden has been used in family and state dinners, and given to a homeless shelter. Vegetables from it have been pickled and given in gift baskets to visiting dignitaries. Honey from the hive has been given to the wives of foreign leaders as well as royals Will and Kate.

It spawned copy-cat gardens in cities and at schools all over the country, including Baltimore, where then-Mayor Sheila Dixon planted City Hall's formal gardens with vegetables for Our Daily Bread — and said she'd actually had the idea first.

Dutifully, Gov. Martin O'Malley and his wife, Katie, and their young sons planted a vegetable garden at Government House in Annapolis, even though the shaded beds were a challenge. And there was even a marzipan replica of the garden on the White House gingerbread house at Christmas.

It comes as no surprise that her book about the garden is being criticized as an election-season ploy carried out by a campaign staff that knows the first lady is more popular than her husband. That's because the seeds of political discord were planted at almost the same moment as those first lettuces and herbs.

When the spring crops were harvested by the schoolchildren that first June, everybody was amazed at what some compost and a lot of rain had produced. But Obama detractors said the garden was fake, that the White House secretly substituted mature plants for seedlings to fool the public and that the media was complicit.

Conspiracy theories grew like ... well, like weeds. One contended that the South Lawn soil was loaded with lead – the result of fertilizing with sludge during the Clinton years to make the grass grow – and that the first lady had banned the garden's produce from the White House and was sending it to feed poor children in the District of Columbia whose brain development would be stunted as a result.

The vegetable garden served as backdrop for "The Biggest Loser" and "Iron Chef" episodes, one of which aired on Election Night in 2010 (Fox commentator Sean Hannity said the White House was trying to distract the public from the fact that Democrats were losing some governorships).

From the beginning of the garden and Michelle Obama's campaign for healthful eating, there was resistance to Big Government telling families what to eat, telling parents what to feed their children.

But in truth, this woman, who grew up in a working-class family on Chicago's South Side where fresh fruit and vegetables were at a premium, and who became a time-stressed working mother who let family mealtime slide into fast food and takeout, is perhaps the only woman in American who could carry that message, fraught with issues of race and class, to minority parents.

Her book is a combination of personal journey, gardening guide and cookbook, with glimpses into community and school garden projects across the country and with essays from the White House beekeeper, Olympic athletes and an army lieutenant general.

All the proceeds go to the National Park Foundation, which, along with White House volunteers, provides some of the workers who keep the garden looking so perfect.

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