In 2009, she planted a garden on the White House grounds, becoming the first to do so since Eleanor Roosevelt. Today, as the first lady details in her new book, that garden stands as a symbol of the growing movement to get better food into America's national diet.
Author Joe Keohane Illustration Charis Tsevis
CONVENTIONAL WISDOM HOLDS that kids and vegetables are natural enemies. So when first lady Michelle Obama planted a kitchen garden at the White House, she was surprised to see the local schoolkids whose help she’d enlisted take to it the way they did — particularly one little girl who wandered off with a whole tray of cauliflower (“This is so good, what is it?”), and a couple of 4-year-olds who got so carried away picking herbs that they began ripping out entire plants. “They tore up the whole herb section,” the first lady says with a chuckle. “It was the cutest thing — they were into it.”
All first ladies have signature initiatives; Michelle Obama’s is health. In addition to launching Let’s Move!, a program that educates parents about the best way to feed their kids and encourages youngsters to be more active, she decided to help start a national conversation about how America eats by cultivating a White House garden, becoming the first to do so since Eleanor Roosevelt grew a victory garden there during World War II.
Her experiences in the garden and beyond are detailed in her new book, American Grown, which mixes memoir, gardening tips, public policy ideas, and stories about people who are using gardens to combat childhood obesity and bring fresh food to places that have long gone without it. She recently spoke to Hemispheres from the White House about the pleasures of gardening, the need to eat better and how her husband reacted to her idea to introduce tens of thousands of bees near his basketball court.
HEMISPHERES: Let me just start by saying that every attempt I’ve made to grow anything has yielded disastrous results. You never grew a garden in your whole life before this one, and yours turned out great. So you give me hope.
OBAMA: [Laughs.] You need the National Park Service.
HEMISPHERES: That was actually going to be my next question. Can you lend them to me for a few days?
OBAMA: I’d love to! I cannot take credit for the success of this garden. This truly has become a community effort. There are people who work in the White House, in all areas, who volunteer a couple of times a week to go down there and weed. It’s a great way to just let off steam. And of course we have all these wonderful schoolkids who help me too. Yesterday was our spring planting, and we planted the garden in 15 minutes because we had 34 kids. You know what? That’s what you need: 34 kids. You need 34 kids to help you plant.
HEMISPHERES: Noted. You’re the first person since Eleanor Roosevelt to grow food on the White House grounds — where did the idea come from?
OBAMA: It really started in my kitchen in Chicago. As a working mom, I came to the issue of childhood health because I was falling into the same rut as many other parents around the country. We were eating out way too much, not paying attention to portion sizes, drinking lots of sugary drinks. My pediatrician pulled me aside and suggested I check out our diet, because the numbers weren’t going the way they should. I thought I was doing the best I could for Sasha and Malia, so it was kind of a shock to me. We made some very basic changes in our household. I tried to cook maybe one more time during the week, and bake more than fry. We got rid of all our sugary drinks and started drinking more water. We looked at portion sizes. By the next visit, our doctor said the kids were back on track in terms of what he wanted to see. It took so little to make these changes.
HEMISPHERES: Did the kids push back?
OBAMA: Oh yeah. You start reading labels and throwing out the juice boxes, and they’re looking sad over the garbage pail. But one of the things we did was to make a habit of going to farmers’ markets more and involving the kids in the process. What I found was that my kids were more willing to try things that they had a hand in picking out. Then I started thinking that if I didn’t know these things, what’s everybody else doing? What about parents who don’t have access to farmers’ markets and don’t have this information? I thought it would be cool to plant a garden at the White House and use it as an educational tool. This was during the campaign, long before we even knew Barack had a chance. But that’s when the idea was hatched.
HEMISPHERES: You got a great platform to spread your message, but at the same time you ended up with what had to be the most scrutinized kitchen garden in the history of the world.
OBAMA: Absolutely. It’s right before planting day and you start thinking, “What if nothing grows? What if after all this work the tomatoes taste horrible and it’s just a complete failure?”
HEMISPHERES: Then you have op-ed writers turning it into a metaphor.
HEMISPHERES: But you’ve done very well. Your first harvest yielded 1,600 pounds of produce. That’s serious.
OBAMA: I stopped keeping track after a while. We get thousands of pounds of food from that garden each year, and we eat from it every day. We incorporate greens into salads for state dinners, for luncheons, and we give hundreds of pounds of food to Miriam’s Kitchen, which is a soup kitchen right in our neighborhood. None of the food goes to waste. And there is a lot of it.
HEMISPHERES: After kids from a local elementary school helped you with that first harvest, one student wrote an essay about it that kept returning to the concept of gentleness. It seemed like a revelation to him, and you wrote that it moved you to tears.
OBAMA: We’d had the kids with us for most of the year, and they invited me to their school one day to see their garden. The students had written essays, and a few of them got up and read them to me. There was this kid, he’s this Hispanic young man, a jock fifth-grader dude, and here he is talking about how kind the people were to him and how they taught him to be gentle, even with the earthworms and pulling the tomatoes off the vine. And seeing this kid talking about tomatoes in such poetic terms exemplified everything I had hoped the garden would be. That was emotional for me. The kids were learning things that we weren’t teaching overtly.
HEMISPHERES: I remember in your husband’s book The Audacity of Hope, he wrote that he sees in you “the slightest hint of uncertainty, as if, deep inside, she knew how fragile things really were.” Gardening’s all about being mindful of the fragility of the world. Do you think that’s why you connected with it the way you did?
OBAMA: You’re asking me to go way deeper than I think I’ve ever gone — sheesh! Well, I’m sure that part of it is being a mother and watching my own kids grow. They’re at that age when they’re starting to sprout like the garden in summer. It’s such a powerful thing to watch a kid change shoe sizes in a matter of months. It reminds you that time is fleeting. Things happen; a seed turns into life. It’s instantaneous, in a way, but then you have to care for that life. And that’s something we’re also trying to show kids: They have to take care of themselves like they’re taking care of the plants in their garden. I ask kids all the time if they’d think to water their plants with soda, and they’re usually like, “No, that would be crazy.” But we can’t expect people to know these things today. If a kid sees a commercial for a sugary cereal, he’s going to want it, but that cereal is not the best food for this “plant” he’s trying to grow.
HEMISPHERES: It’s depressing that such a simple insight seems so profound now.
OBAMA: You know, it didn’t used to be that way. That’s the hope that I have, that we see this change over the course of my lifetime. What I’ve learned in dealing with this issue is that we have all the answers right in our hands. Solving this problem doesn’t require new science, a new drug. It’s right there — it’s learning how to treat ourselves as gently as we treat our gardens. With this generation we’re resetting the clock and restarting the conversation.
HEMISPHERES: The book’s purpose is serious, but there’s a bit of humor in there too. You had a beehive — which now contains about 70,000 bees — built on the White House grounds. Your husband was understandably concerned about this part of the project, since the hive would be near his basketball court. How’d you go about convincing him?
OBAMA: You know, he didn’t really have a say. [Laughs.] We did have to have a discussion, though, because Malia is terrified of bees. She was stung once and still harbors that fear. But after she talked to the beekeeper and saw the hive, she understood that honeybees are not killer attack bees. They’re pretty busy doing what they do. It didn’t take a lot of convincing.
HEMISPHERES: She’s at peace with the bees now?
OBAMA: She’s at peace with the bees. They live in harmony way down by the garden. We go down there often just to check them out. And they don’t swarm. The hive is pretty far away from where people are. It’s a safe entity. It’s an accepted member of our hive.
HEMISPHERES: But they did swarm once, over by the northwest gate. When the beekeeper got there, he found the Secret Service agents huddled in the guard booth. Luckily, he managed to get the bees back to the hive easily enough.
OBAMA: I didn’t hear about that until we started the book, actually. No one told me! It was a freak accident. And I didn’t tell Malia about it.
HEMISPHERES: Hopefully she won’t read this interview, then.
OBAMA: Trust me, if it involves me she won’t read it. [Laughs.] They’re not interested in what we do.
Hemispheres editor in chief JOE KEOHANE’s basil plant actually winces when he goes near it.