White House Kitchen Garden
With the government shutdown averted, I was able to visit the White House this weekend for my first tour of the grounds. Trees and gardens planted by former presidents and first ladies line the path. But none made a greater impression on me than the White House organic kitchen garden planted by first lady Michelle Obama just over two years ago. The garden is the first to produce food on the White House grounds since first lady Eleanor Roosevelt planted a victory garden during World War II.
It is smaller and simpler than I had imagined. The kitchen garden reminds me of others I have seen in the city or on school grounds and is only slightly larger (though, noticeably better cared for) than the backyard garden I keep at my home in Washington, DC. Mrs. Obama's garden is already brandishing sizable lettuce, chard and other cool weather veggies. Just yards away from the raised garden beds, an apiary is tucked away beside some small trees – this beehive is the first to have its own secret service detail, according to White House staff.
My visit to the first lady's kitchen garden couldn't help remind me of my time as an environmental educator. Before moving to DC and coming on board as Sierra Club's National Youth Representative, I spent my days (and nights) leading children and youth on outdoor environmental education experiences. From the children of South Carolina to Massachusetts to California, I was fortunate to witness 100s if not 1000s of children and youth morph (like the dragonfly nymphs we observed) from kids who were “not sitting on that filthy ground” to kids who couldn't wait to get their hands dirty digging through the soil in search of invertebrates or harvesting fresh flowers and vegetables from a garden.
Back then, one of the biggest hits for the kids (or perhaps for me) was always “sunshine taco” day. The children would line up in the formation of a caterpillar and we would inch our way through the garden discovering and collecting edible flowers and vegetables. By the end of our long journey, the kids would have inevitably identified nasturtium leaves as the best available substitute for a taco shell. Anyone who has ever eaten the leaves of nasturtium knows that no matter how much you stuff them with delicious vegetables, their bitter flavor will overwhelm your taste buds. Nonetheless, these kids made the tacos themselves during a time when they were just discovering where their food comes from, and they couldn't have appeared more pleased eating their bitter garden hors d'oeuvres than if they had been scarfing down double-fudge chocolate cake topped with rocky road ice cream.
For kids (and adults) who have grown more and more detached from the natural world, a backyard, schoolyard, or community garden may be one of the best places to experience first hand the wonders of nature. For the child, a garden can encourage healthier eating habits, help them understand where their food comes, and teach them other valuable lessons in life sciences. Research suggests that children with greater access to green spaces are more likely to be physically active. Studies also show that spending time in nature can reduce stress, improve cognitive function, increase interest in learning, minimize symptoms of attention deficit disorders and generally improve the wellbeing of children and youth. But most important, a community garden can be an oasis for a child with limited access to green spaces where s/he can just explore and enjoy the natural world.
Thanks first lady Michelle Obama for planting a White House kitchen garden, for inviting local children to help care for it, and for inspiring millions to eat healthier, get active and be outdoors! Let’s Move!
--by Jacqueline Ostfeld, Sierra Club's National Youth Representative