WASHINGTON --Tuesday marked a rare two-event day for First Lady Michelle Obama. She delivered a booster talk to a city volunteerism group and, with students from a public school, harvested some crops from the White House organic garden.
In remarks to the kids, Mrs. Obama promoted healthy eating and President Obama's health care plan while the kids ate baked chicken, brown rice, their fresh-picked salad and cupcakes at a picnic at the First Lady's garden by the East Wing.
"Breaded and baked is the new fried," said Sam Kass, an assistant White House chef and food initiative coordinator.
All the recent rain in Washington created a lush organic garden on the South Lawn of the White House, a pet project of Mrs. Obama's, overseen by Kass. The garden contains herbs, sweet potatoes, kale, collards, chard, onions, beans, and several varieties of tomatoes, lettuce and cucumbers. Seeds from Thomas Jefferson's Monticello produced peas, spinach, cabbage and lettuce.
While waiting beside the garden for Mrs. Obama to join the 36 kids, mostly fifth-graders from Bancroft School here -- and a bunch of reporters -- I asked Kass how often the pristine garden had to be weeded.
I asked out of some personal interest because on Sunday I planted tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and an eggplant in my back yard. I also just had my clover-infested lawn dug up and reseeded, though so many of the grass sprouts died. I'm not sure what to do next. I noticed little or no crab grass and clover on the South Lawn.
Kass, a Chicago chef transplanted to the Obama White House kitchen, told me he and a pastry chef weed the garden about once a week and because of all the rain, they have not had to water much. Kass was wearing his kitchen white jacket. Spotless.
While waiting, I spotted Obama's half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, in from Hawaii. She told me she is here in connection with the White House Fellows program and is staying at the White House for a few days. She said she helped pick her dinner the night before.
Mrs. Obama appeared and told the kids, sitting at picnic tables with red-checked tablecloths, "It's harvest day." I could hear her because she was wearing a wireless microphone. (Here's my photo gallery
of the "Harvest Party.")
"Today is the fun part."
She got down on her knees and helped kids cut lettuce. The produce was washed by the kids and weighed, as Kass likes to keep tabs on the yield to date, which was 90 pounds before the cutting started on Tuesday.
At one point Mrs. Obama munched, I think, a pea. The kids did not know, she said, that "you can eat them straight." She hugged the kids alot, putting them at ease.
After about 18 minutes in the garden, the entourage was moved to the White House. While some kids waited in the First Lady's garden, others followed Kass to the White House kitchen.
The pool reporter in the kitchen filed the following:
The kitchen staff gave each child an apron and a paper chef's hat.
"Everybody wash your hands," Kass said.
The children were divided into three teams. One group of boys broke eggs for the coating for the chicken, 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 shelled peas. Mrs. Obama arrived and joined the team, with Kass showing the children how to snap the peas. Mrs. 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, Mrs. Obama turned to the children who were preparing the chicken and said baked chicken "is a healthier version of fried chicken."
One chef also told the children they could prepare this kind of chicken at home with "Shake 'n 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 difficult 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 Mrs. Obama went into the First Lady's garden."
In the garden, I watched Mrs. Obama helped set the table with paper plates and plastic utensils. As the kids were eating at the "Harvest Party," she walked to a podium.
I soon learned that while growing up on Chicago's South Side, fast food was a rarity in the Robinson home.
"The planting of this garden was one of the first things I wanted to do as First Lady here at the White House," Mrs. Obama said.
"It was something I had talked about a long time ago. And with the help of you guys, you helped to make this dream a reality.
"And as you could see when we went down to the garden, can you imagine how thriving that garden is, just how much food grew from a few little seeds and some plantings?
"...But I also thought that this would be a fun and interesting way to talk to kids about healthy eating and nutrition. The President and Congress are going to begin to address health care reform, and these issues of nutrition and wellness and preventative care are going to be the focus of a lot of conversation in the weeks and months to come. And these are issues that I care deeply about, especially when they affect America's children.
"Obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure are all diet-related health issues that cost this country more than $120 billion each year. That's a lot of money. While the dollar figure is shocking in and of itself, the effect on our children's health is even more profound. Nearly a third of the children in this country are either overweight or obese, and a third will suffer from diabetes at some point in their lifetime.
"In Hispanic and African American communities, those numbers climb even higher so that nearly half of the children in those communities will suffer the same fate. Those numbers are unacceptable."
As is standard now in Mrs. Obama's speeches, she turned to her own life to relate to the matter at hand. "The way we eat has changed substantially since I was a little girl."
"...When I was growing up, fast food was a rarity. It wasn't something you did every day. It was a special treat, and we would beg to get it, and it was exciting if we drove into a fast-food place and got a hamburger. We were
thrilled. It was like Christmas.
"Desserts were for special occasions. We didn't get dessert every night. And we didn't have dessert several times a day. Eating out was a luxury because, at least in my family, we couldn't afford it.
Said Mrs. Obama, "If we got pizza on a Friday night, that was a treat."