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White House Garden Is 'Completely Safe'

6 years ago
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Some stories are out there suggesting -- incorrectly, according to the office of First Lady Michelle Obama -- that the food grown in the White House garden on the South Lawn is tainted because there was lead found in the soil.

The White House garden has become a special project for Mrs. Obama, who has made healthy eating one of her signature causes. Ground was cleared for the garden last March and the pictures of Mrs. Obama planting in April and harvesting produce with school children in June have served to underscore her interest in promoting fresh food.

A spokesman for the First Lady, Semonti Mustaphi, sent me this statement: "The garden recently underwent extensive soil testing that proved it is completely safe. A lead level of 93 parts per million is significantly better than the government standard for a garden like this. The White House Kitchen Garden Team is committed to producing fresh, safe, and healthy food as a learning opportunities (sic) about healthy eating, and they'll continue to do so."

I called the National Park Service and obtained the report on White House soil testing done last February, in advance of the planting. The analysis on the soil sample was conducted by the A & L Eastern Laboratories, Inc. in Richmond, Va.

While the lead content was higher than typically found in non-contaminated soil, the lab said the soil was not unsafe. The typical range for lead is 10 parts per million to 70 parts per million, according to the report from A & L. Using "general guidelines," the A & L analysis said an unsafe lead level starts at 500 parts per million and at 1,000 parts per million it is unsafe for a garden or for child contact. In other words, the White House sample that came in at 93 parts per million would have to have five times as much lead as it does to qualify as unsafe.

By the way -- the East Wing reminded me that the garden was never intended to be an organic garden, as defined under federal guidelines.

The federal government has specific definitions to be met before food products can be labeled organic. Those criterion, arrived after years of debate, were established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2002. The White House did not seek to become a certified organic grower. Soil has to be free from certain chemicals for three years to be certified organic and no chemical pesticides or fertilizers can be used.

Nonetheless, White House garden keepers--including Sam Kass, an Assistant White House Chef and Food Initiative Coordinator -- are attempting as best they can to manage the 1,100-square-foot garden in ways consistent with organic philosophy -- starting with enriching the soil with White House compost, and by using organic fertilizers and insect repellents.

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