I'm sitting in Reagan National Airport waiting for my flight and thinking back on the events of the White House Kitchen Garden Season Kick-Off. It was a once-in-a-lifetime day.
In the morning I met with the First Lady’s staff to discuss school gardening. We talked about how much the First Lady believed in gardening as a tool to engage children in a healthier lifestyle. She views gardening as an integral part of her “Let’s Move” initiative to raise a healthier generation of kids.
I must admit that when I start talking about youth gardening programs, it’s hard for me to not get excited. That’s because, like the First Lady, I recognize that youth gardening programs represent a tremendous opportunity for children to understand and explore the natural world, as well as learn first-hand the benefits of growing, harvesting, and eating healthy foods. It's called the ‘people-plant connection’, and every child deserves an opportunity to have access to this relationship.
No activity better links young people to food and nature than gardening. The garden experience bonds youngsters to the cycles of life and teaches them to understand where their food comes from. Is there any greater satisfaction – or “greener” activity – a child can experience than smelling a flower from his or her own garden, plucking a carrot from the ground, or digging new potatoes from warm soil? What can make parents happier than hearing their child tell them they want chard for dinner?
Later that day, I was honored to be invited back to attend the second year installation of the newly expanded White House Kitchen Garden. First Lady Michelle Obama, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, as well as White House chef Sam Kass and staff, met on the grounds of the White House lawn, along with 30+ of the most well-behaved school children I have ever seen. We heard the First Lady enthusiastically embrace the process of planting and eating fresh fruits and vegetables.
The children sat at picnic tables, each featuring a big basket of apples, awaiting their planting instructions. The First Lady encouraged the children to eat the apples and reminded them of all they had accomplished by planting this garden together! She encouraged the captivated audience of fifth graders to be active in the garden as she spoke of her “Lets Move” initiative. Secretary Vilsack bragged about being able to wear comfortable clothes to work in the garden and led children in a cheer for broccoli and other assorted veggies. Secretary Sebelius assured all of us that ketchup found in school lunchrooms across the country would no longer count as a vegetable for school lunches!
It was clear to me that this administration is concerned about our young people’s health. They promoted a united message that this generation of young people deserves an opportunity to live and be healthy through diet and physical activity. The fact that this message was delivered in the shadow of the White House Kitchen Garden, with young people actively engaged in planting, clearly indicates that gardens, and school gardens in particular, are major components of the First Lady’s action plan.
With the child-focused speeches concluded, the children were given the go ahead to “Let’s Garden.” And garden they did! In fact, I wish I had this crew to help me with my own garden! At each beautiful raised bed the plants, shovels, and watering pails were at the ready. The children were totally engaged; vying for plants to plant and water to water. We talked about roots and bugs and soil, sun, and water. This was hands-on learning at its best!
My group of children was responsible for planting the new 400 square foot garden expansion. I had the distinct honor of planting the first bok choy and artichokes, which was dutifully mentioned later that day on the CBS evening news! Try explaining to a child what ripened bok choy and artichokes look like. It’s not easy! Fortunately, by the time the growing season ends every child who experienced this planting process will also experience, first-hand, the joys of eating bok choy and artichokes, along with a host of other nutritious produce.
It was a singular experience to be part of a small bit of history in the making. The fact that this is the first White House food garden since Roosevelt is no small footnote. Youth gardening is seen as an integral part of the total solution to the health crisis affecting young people in this country, and this administration appears to be serious about the implementation of school garden programs nationwide. From the USDA’s People’s Garden Initiative, on which NGA serves as part of the advisory group, to the Department of Health’s focus on what children are being served for school lunch, to the CDC’s efforts to promote the eating of healthful fruits and vegetables, to the First Lady’s kitchen garden initiative, our young people, more than at anytime in recent years, have a fighting chance to really thrive-- be healthier and more physically fit.
First Lady Michelle Obama, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius talk with the two fifth grade classes
Oh yes, there was one more reason for my visit to the White House on March 31st, 2010! I was there to see the children receive specially created school gardening activity sheets, designed and produced by NGA’s outstanding education staff. Our devoted team of youth gardening educators and education institution partners produce some of the highest quality gardening curricula in the country. We are honored to have been asked by the First Lady’s office to share a small sample of our renowned content with the fifth grade classes invited to the White House kitchen garden planting. And now you can enjoy the very same activity sheet used at the White House by downloading the PDF (attached below) we’ve made available online.
For years, NGA has been operating a school garden registry and promoting our Garden In Every School® Initiative. To see the principles that we have long embraced practiced by the highest levels in our government is unbelievably rewarding. Thank you for your years of trust and support. Together, we will continue to “Help Young Minds Grow®.”
In case you are still sitting on the fence about the benefits of school gardening programs, take a look at the chart included in my letter (attached below). It outlines the many disciplines, activities, and benefits school gardening programs provide children. Happy gardening and remember, When You Garden, You Grow®!