Will this be the last harvest for Michelle Obama's White House garden?
The garden has symbolized the first lady's effort to promote nutrition and healthy living, but it will be up to the next president to either keep the garden going or plough it under.
Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Presidents, they come and go. But first lady Michelle Obama wants her garden to stay at the White House once she leaves in four months.
Mrs. Obama unveiled a much larger version of the garden Wednesday, with concrete, stone, and steel to root it on the South Lawn. To coincide with the dedication ceremony, the White House announced an arrangement with the National Park Service to maintain the garden into the next presidency, as well as $2.5 million in private donations to pay for its upkeep.
The garden, which has doubled in size since Obama started it in 2009, has become a symbol of her efforts to fight childhood obesity and promote healthy living among American families. Her Let’s Move! campaign has been met with criticism from Republicans and unhappy schoolchildren. Yet, she hopes the next administration will continue to build on the modest successes she has seen.
“This has truly become a movement and it certainly won’t end when I leave the White House because we’ve still got a long way to go before we solve this problem,” she said. ‘‘I am hopeful that future first families will cherish this garden like we have, and that it will become one of our enduring White House traditions.’’
Obama first dreamed of the 2,800-square-foot garden before she moved from Chicago. Advocates of eating more fresh, locally grown food, including California chef Alice Waters, also spent months lobbying the Obamas to start the garden.
Shortly after Obama first dug her hands into the South Lawn to start the garden, she planted the seeds for Let’s Move! in 2010. The garden, then, started a national conversation about health and the wellbeing of the country that transformed into the movement. The goal of the campaign is to give parents information and help foster environments for supporting healthier choices, according to the White House. This includes ensuring families and students have access to healthy, affordable food, and increased physical activity.
It coincided with the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) that was signed into law in 2010. The legislation increased portions of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables served to students at lunch, and limited the number of calories in school breakfasts and lunches. But it was met with criticism by Republicans, food companies, school lunch professionals, and even schoolchildren themselves. They posted photos of soggy scoops of vegetables on Facebook and Instagram with the phrase “Thanks Obama.”
But more than five years after the campaign was started, it has experienced modest success. Researchers at the University of Washington Nutritional Sciences program found in January 2016 the meal standards the law established substantially increased the quality of food served at schools, while the number of children who ate lunch didn’t decrease as expected. In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) also said the prevalence of obesity dropped 43 percent among young children – aged 2 to 4 – between 2004 and 2012, according to CNN.
Critics said the CDC cherry-picked the data. At 17 percent, the overall rate of childhood obesity remained more than three times higher than it was in 1974. That overall rate hasn’t changes since 2008, before Let’s Move! began. But experts said the drop among young children is a promising sign, and no rise in the overall obesity rate is good news, too.
The garden also inspired home gardens across the country.
“That’s the first word out of people’s mouths when we talk about gardens,” David Ellis, spokesman for the American Horticulture Society, told the Associated Press in 2010. Mrs. Obama’s garden has “just made an incredible influence on people who haven’t gardened before.”
It has even been used in diplomacy. President Obama gave Pope Francis a box of seeds from the garden. The Obamas have also given heads of state and their spouses honey from the first-ever White House beehive, which sits next to the garden.
Of course, nothing is preventing the future president (be it Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton) from ploughing under the garden. Former President Bill Clinton maintained a small vegetable garden on the roof of the White House, while Politico quipped about Mr. Trump’s tastes.
“His penchant for fast food, from McDonald’s to KFC chicken and taco bowls, might make him less inclined in growing kale, sweet potatoes and kohlrabi in the backyard,” writes Helena Bottemiller Evich for Politico.
Meanwhile, students joined Obama Thursday for the final fall harvest, collecting eggplant, okra, tomatoes, and herbs.
In the coming weeks, the raised beds will be covered with plastic hoop houses to allow broccoli, kale, and collard greens to grow through the winter.
It will be up to the next administration to harvest them.
This report contains material from the Associated Press.