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Agweek reporter spends the day with first lady at White House garden

WASHINGTON -- What's it really like for a group of schoolchildren -- and an Agweek reporter -- to go to a garden harvest at the White House? As an agriculture reporter, I don't go to the White House very often. I spend most of my time covering Co...

WASHINGTON -- What's it really like for a group of schoolchildren -- and an Agweek reporter -- to go to a garden harvest at the White House?

As an agriculture reporter, I don't go to the White House very often. I spend most of my time covering Congress and the agriculture secretary. But when Michelle Obama, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and pupils from the Bancroft elementary school in Washington planted a vegetable garden on the White House lawn in April, I was there. And when it came time for the harvest two months later, the White House press office asked if I was interested in covering it -- and enhanced the offer by asking if I would be the "pool repoter" to write a report for the many repoters who wanted to come but were not admitted. It was too fun an opportunity to resist and had serious moments, too, because Obama noted that both she and her husband think the quality of school meals should be improved when Congress reauthorizes the child nutrition programs later this year.

The security clearance went smoothly and it always is a thrill to walk through the Rose Garden down the White House lawn. But this time, the rapid growth of the garden that had been planted in April was amazing to this Midwesterner. Washington's climate is warmer than my native North Dakota, however, and as Sam Kass, the associate White House chef the Obamas brought from Chicago, put it, "The rain has been beautiful."

The children from Bancroft already were there. They and we reporters, who were behind a rope, had to wait quite a while because Mrs. Obama was being interviewed by ABC News for an upcoming series on health care.

Harvest time

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Meanwhile, Kass told the children, the teachers and the press that the garden already had produced lettuce, snap peas, beans, kale, collards and chard. Kass said he has taken 90 pounds of produce from the garden, including broccoli and green beans and "one beautiful eggplant." He also said he has harvested herbs "every night," which are not included in the 90 pounds. The garden has produced only one cucumber, which Kass saved for the children to harvest. It was supposed to be a white cucumber, but it had turned yellow.

Kass said no chemicals -- fertilizer or herbicide -- had been used on the garden, but that the underlying White House soil had been "amended" with crab meal from the Chesapeake Bay, green sand compost and lime powder. A White House spokeswoman also said that only organic fertilizers and insect repellants will be used and that lady bugs and praying mantises will be introduced to naturally control other insect populations. A honeybee hive has been set up nearby for pollination purposes.

Kass said that the only insect problem he had noticed is that "something is nibbling a little bit on the kale."

But Kass also noted the garden "is not certified organic." He didn't mention USDA guidelines, but, in fact, no agriculture production can be certified organic until three years after conventional fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides were used on it. For the White House garden, a plot of grass that had been treated conventionally was dug up.

Kass said there has been one big weeding once a week and that he and a pastry chef along with "volunteers" from the White House had done the weeding. He did not say who the volunteers were, leaving reporers to speculate on what high-level officials might be taking out their frustrations on the weeds. The garden was cleaner of weeds than the area under the nearby trees.

Kass also said the White House has begun offering tours of the garden to schoolchildren and plans to have the school tours about twice a week.

Wash and eat

Kass said he had told the children that the Thomas Jefferson lettuce already has gone to seed and that he explained to the children about farmers passing seed down through the generations. Kass also said that he has visited the children's school and that they told him working on a garden has taught them they need to take care of themselves and their families and neighborhoods. Kass said one boy told him he had "learned to be gentle" by tending plants.

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Obama then walked down the lawn alone dressed in orange jeans, a blouse and patterned sweater and immediately thanked the children for being there when the ground was broken and the garden planted.

"Your group helped pull up the soil," she reminded them.

Obama then took a knife and showed the children how to cut lettuce heads from the bottom. Other children harvested other vegetables. The children washed the various types of lettuce -- red oakleaf, green leaf and lola rossa, according to a map of the garden provided by White House staff -- in clear plastic bins, but Kass very wisely noted that they would wash the lettuce again before it would be used. The children weighed the produce and a White House spokeswoman said the harvest that day was 73 pounds of lettuce and 12 pounds of peas.

The harvesting done, the children walked up the lawn, most to the first lady's garden to wash the lettuce again make and salad and decorate cup cakes with raspberries and blueberries, apparently as a healthy alternative to frosting, and about 10 followed Kass into the White House kitchen.

As the pool reporter, I went along to the kitchen, which is all stainless steel but smaller than those in many new suburban or farm houses today. It's amazing that the food for state dinners can be prepared in such a small space.

The kitchen staff gave each child an apron and a paper chef's hat.

"Everybody wash your hands," Kass said.

Breaded and baked

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The children were divided into three teams. One group of boys broke eggs for the coating for the boneless chicken filets, which would be baked. A chef taught the boys to break the eggs on a flat surface and then break them in the bowl, but one egg burst as the boy was putting it in. There did not seem to be any shell lost in the egg batter, however.

A second team was shelling peas. Obama arrived and joined the team, with Kass showing the children how to snap the peas.

Obama noted, "We were eating some peas in the garden. The peas are very sweet."

One chef told a child, "Take the bud off."

After a time, Obama turned to the children who were preparing the chicken and said of the baked chicken they would eat, "This is a healthier version of fried chicken."

One chef also told the children they could prepare this kind of chicken at home with "shake and bake."

A third group of children cut up onions for the brown rice and cooked the brown rice. They were the farthest from the media and it was impossible to hear what was said at that table.

As the half-hour came to an end, Kass asked them, "What are we going to do now?"

"Clean up," the children replied. Kass gave them towels and said, "Remember, whenever you touch chicken, you've got to wash your hands."

The children, Kass and Obama went into the first lady's Garden. Obama helped set the picnic tables covered with red and white checked cloths with paper plates and plastic tableware.

After the children listened to Obama, who made remarks to the press, they finally were allowed to eat their healthy lunch of salad, baked chicken, brown rice, peas and cupcakes topped with berries.

There were no complaints to be heard.

"Breaded and baked is the new fried," Kass later told reporters as we were leaving. It is a message that may be sent next year to school programs across the country.

Editor's Note: Hagstrom is a Washington-based correspondent for Agweek.

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