Essay: At the White House garden with Michelle Obama, for the last time

First Lady Michelle Obama joins students and guests for the "Let's Move!" Spring garden planting in the White House Kitchen Garden, April 5, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)
First Lady Michelle Obama joins students and guests for the “Let’s Move!” Spring garden planting in the White House Kitchen Garden, April 5, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

I had a blissful experience last week, solo parenting with my 12-year-old daughter in California during spring break. I fell out of the news cycle entirely, free of any political sentiment. And when I returned to Washington, one of the first things I did was attend Michelle Obama’s planting of the White House Kitchen Garden on Tuesday. I didn’t want to miss this event because I knew it was the last time the First Lady and her team of assistants would be setting young plants in soil. In a sense, the political respite I felt was extended for another day.

It was a glorious if frigid spring afternoon in Washington, the tulips bursting into bloom in the beds outside the White House, the buds opening on the trees. Walking through a White House corridor redolent with fresh-cut Lilies and down onto the South Lawn to the garden, we (the press, that is) came upon a group of school children having a snack at picnic tables beside the raised beds before the planting began. After about 15 minutes, the First Lady showed up wearing a green bomber jacket, sensible work pants, high-top sneakers, and a pair of gloves.

“It was eight years ago that we cooked up this really interesting idea that maybe we could dig up some dirt on the South Lawn … and we would plant a wonderful garden that would be a space for us to talk about the food we eat,” Obama said.

“It’s been really a fun tradition for us here at the White House, because I think we’ve really been able to change the conversation about what you guys eat,” she told the kids. “Because our thought was that if you know where your food comes from, you might be a little more interested in eating your vegetables if you know what they look like.”

Young students from Washburn, Wisconsin, Cortez, Colorado, New Orleans and two DC schools listened to the First Lady, then plunged their hands into the dirt. The only thing the media seemed dismayed at was Obama’s penchant to look down once she started planting, hiding her face in her hair as cameras clicked. I happened to be standing next to two beaming adults who had brought five kids from the Montezuma County School-to-Farm Project in Cortez, which is in the far southwestern rural corner of the state.

“It’s where the mountains meet the desert,” Danyel Mezzanatto, the elementary school coordinator for the farm-to-school project, told me. Historically a farming region, Cortez grew apples a century ago but more recently has shifted to beans, grains and organic produce. Montezuma has four school gardens, and is planning a fifth. More than 2,000 kids are involved in the project, which grows food for several schools. It was the first recipient in the state of a USDA farm-to-school grant, Mezzanatto said. Many of the kids are low-income, in a population equally split between Indian, Hispanic and white. Mezzanatto, who looked to be in her early 30s, said the project began in 2009 — the same year Michelle Obama broke ground at the White House.

The impact of the First Lady’s “Let’s Move” program will be debated for years, but the gardens have become a central part of the movement toward healthier food and the fight against childhood obesity. Some may dismiss it as a photo op (and it was a great one on this sunny day), but I think the impact of this garden has rippled far and wide. “We were surprised when we got the call to come to the White House,” Mezzanatto said. Until then, they were teaching students how to garden, grow native and drought resilient plants, and help feed themselves and their schools. Now it was clear that she felt they were part of something much bigger. And she was right.