First lady leads the local food movement

Each first lady of recent history has championed a cause while in the White House.

Jackie Kennedy highlighted culture and the arts, Lady Bird Johnson’s passion was wild flowers, while Laura Bush promoted literacy and reading. First Lady Michelle Obama has now written her first book, American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America, which reflects her passion to raise heathy children and families.

It was Malia and Sasha’s pediatrician who pointed out the need for their family to eat more nutritious foods, especially fresh fruits and vegetables. That conversation led to a change of lifestyle for the Obamas before most Americans had ever heard of the family of four from Chicago. Obama has dreamed of having a kitchen garden since that time.

After the Obama family moved into the White House. Obama was able to make her dream a reality. Since the entire White House lawn is part of the U.S. National Parks Service, she began working with the staff members to plan a garden. On April 9, 2009, with the help of 23 fifth graders from Bancroft Elementary School, the garden was created.

The book’s introduction shares a small part of Obama’s family history and the type of food available in South Chicago during her youth. She also highlights the creation of “Victory Gardens” during World War II in her mother’s time. The book is then structured following the four seasons.

During the section about spring, Obama shares a brief history of White House gardens. She makes special note of third president Thomas Jefferson and his contributions to agriculture in America’s past. His beloved Monticello gardens are still active and Obama even obtained seeds and plants from those gardens for the White House.

There are two beds out of the 34 in the garden dedicated to Jefferson. Under Obama’s direction, the White House now has a bee colony and is even growing mushrooms.

The summer section expands on the whole movement to bring fresh, healthy food to all Americans. Obama tells of the growth of farmers markets and city and community gardens. As the movement flourishes and people come together to work the soil, friendship and communities are built.

Fall is a busy season of bringing in the harvest. The abundance of produce allows the White House to share its bounty with Miriam’s Kitchen, a nonprofit organization that feeds homeless people in Washington, D.C. She also highlights the growing trend of establishing gardens in schools so students learn where their food comes from and what it looks like when it comes straight from the land.

Winter in Washington is hard on the garden, but with planning and tricks such the use of hoop houses, the garden still produces. This is also the time to plan for the next year’s garden. During winter 2010, Obama launched Let’s Move!, a program to help fight childhood obesity. She also was involved in the development of My Plate, the new take on the old food pyramid to encourage healthy meals.

The book concludes with tips and recipes from each season. The recipes are from the White House chefs and use ingredients that are in season. Obama is generous in her acknowledgement section since it is obvious that many people have contributed to the success of her endeavor.

She also includes a list of resources that will help anyone start a garden. The book has hundreds of color photographs that illustrate and highlight the produce and the processes in cultivating the garden. Obama’s writing is straightforward, friendly and her humor is evident especially when she describes some of their less successful efforts in the garden.

Politics aside, Obama has written a book that will hopefully inspire and motivate more Americans to be more educated and thoughtful about their lifestyle choices for their families.

If gardening is not an option, then she encourages support of farmers markets and locally grown produce. At a time when concerns about the health of the nation and especially the children are high, this book is a welcome addition to the fight for a fit and energized America.

Freelance reviewer Leslie Doran may be reached at