The White House Kitchen Garden

This Monday at the OFA Short Course in Columbus, OH some of us from Bob's Market had the pleasure of attending the keynote presentation to hear from Sam Kass, assistant chef at the White House.  When President Obama and First Lady Obama moved into the White House, they brought along their own personal chef, Sam Kass, to join the kitchen staff in 2009.  Kass was given the title of “assistant chef” and he is also the Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives.  Kass works as an assistant chef under Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford in the White House kitchen, and in his role as Policy Advisor he oversees all elements of Mrs. Obama's food initiatives. His wide-ranging job includes supporting Mrs. Obama's advocacy for better school lunches, her healthy eating/nutrition/fitness campaign, her work with anti-hunger initiatives and food banks, and the White House Kitchen Garden.

The kitchen garden at the White House is the first vegetable garden on the property since WWII.  Kass said that when they moved into the White House they weren’t even sure they were allowed to dig up the south lawn for a vegetable garden.  Four years later the 1,100 square foot garden has produced over 4,000 pounds of food, and a third of that has been donated to food banks.  The produce is used in nearly every meal at the White House from everyday family meals to large state dinners.

Like any gardening effort, the White House garden has its share of failures too.  Aside from squirrels stealing tomatoes, which he wishes the Secret Service would take care of with their guns, Kass said that their biggest challenge is the weather.  They also have trouble growing pumpkins.  He also shared that some of the vegetable varieties they grow were developed by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello and were specifically bred for that region of the US.  He shared a story about a Thomas Jefferson fig tree that a groundskeeper thought was a weed.  He went looking for the missing fig only to find it in the compost bin.  He transplanted it back to the garden and it “hated” him for a while, but this year it finally has figs on it for the first time.

Kass also shared some of the somewhat unsettling experiences he has had while working with inner city children in the garden.  He said he remembers this young girl devouring raw cauliflower during a vegetable tasting.  She had never had it before, and didn’t even know what it was called.  One in three kids in the US will develop diabetes, the stakes a high for better eating, and the garden at the White House is always under the media’s microscope.  “We’re one kid not liking some kale away from this whole thing falling apart.”

The biggest threat to national security today is obesity, according to Kass.  27% of 17 to 24 year olds are disqualified from entering the military due to obesity.  The Army now has pre-boot camp boot camps set up to help get some enlistees in good enough shape to go to boot camp!  “This issue is much bigger than politics.  This is about children and their health.”  Our younger generation may be the first to not live as long as the previous generation.