Why the Last Harvest of the White House Kitchen Garden Is Just the Beginning

Michelle Obama’s commitment to growing—and eating—healthy food has had a national ripple effect.
First lady Michelle Obama helps a youngster harvest vegetables in the White House Kitchen Garden, promoting healthy eating habits by the nation's youth, in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 6. (Photo: Mike Theiler/Reuters)
Oct 7, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

It was a scene that’s become familiar since the announcement in 2009 of her commitment to healthy eating and reducing childhood obesity: Michelle Obama was down in the dirt on Thursday afternoon with nearly two dozen students from Washington, D.C., schools, picking the White House Kitchen Garden’s final crop of fruits and vegetables before winter sets in—a harvest that is also her last as first lady.

No matter who wins the presidential election in November, the crops will grow again come spring, thanks to $2.5 million in private funding and maintenance by the National Park Service. “I take great pride in knowing that this little garden will live on as a symbol of the hopes and dreams we all hold of growing a healthier nation for our children,” Obama said on Wednesday at an event announcing the expansion of the garden, the installation of permanent raised beds, and the staffing and funding commitment. “And over the years, this little garden has inspired countless folks across this country to plant gardens of their own.”

RELATED: Michelle Obama Gives School and Community Gardens a Boost

“Michelle Obama making sure that the garden on the south part of the White House lawn stays and is permanent serves as much more of a symbol for what has to happen around the country: growing healthy, non-GMO, organic food,” Cameron Schuster, a community organizer with the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, told TakePart. “She’s done amazing work, and I think it’s really beautiful that she has left this legacy, but it’s just the beginning; it’s the tip of the iceberg. It has to go deeper. Every school in the country has to have an organic school garden.”

Schuster manages Little Green Fingers, a program that since 2012 has built eight community gardens across Los Angeles County. The initiative, which is funded by early childhood advocacy group First 5 LA and was spearheaded by the Los Angeles Conservation Corps, teaches families to tend plots in community gardens in low-income neighborhoods.

First 5 LA “essentially realized the value of gardens and how they serve low-income communities in terms of affecting their nutrition, their eating habits. It’s ultimately the same thing that Michelle Obama is affecting—the obesity of children,” Schuster told TakePart.

About 30 percent of American kids are heavier than they should be. But Obama said on Wednesday that the focus on nutrition through the garden and her "Let’s Move!" initiative is helping the nation’s children get healthier. “So this garden has helped us start a national conversation about how we live and eat, a conversation that led to the first-ever White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity,” she said.

Schuster said he’s seen that when children and their families are taught about gardening, exercise, and healthy food choices, there’s a ripple effect beyond the number on the scale.

“They begin to understand that health and nutrition has been so far removed from their supermarket shelves, which then opens them up to a whole new world of knowledge about their food and the food industry in this country,” he said.

“The final effect is that level of community building that takes place within these gardens, where grassroots democracy and social governance then become something that they have access to,” Schuster said. “People who felt like they never had any tangible power in their communities are now beginning to develop and realize the potential of people coming together in a green space. They’re now turning into decision makers and enforcers of change in the food deserts that primarily exist in low-income communities of color throughout this country.”

First lady Michelle Obama and President Barack Obama host an event to harvest the White House Kitchen Garden on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 6. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)