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May 3, 2010

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White House kitchen garden gives higher profile to vegetables in diet

THE White House kitchen garden is surely home grown, but it is not organic, and there are no plans for it to be. Assistant White House Chef Sam Kass, an old friend of US President Barack Obama's who oversees the garden, said labeling the crops "organic" is not the point, even though the White House uses only natural fertilizers and pesticides.

"To come out and say (organic) is the one and only way, which is how this would be interpreted, doesn't make any sense," Kass said as he walked among the garden's newly planted broccoli, rhubarb, carrots and spinach. "This is not about getting into all that. This is about kids."

Still, it has become a curiosity around the world and a big part of First Lady Michelle Obama's pitch for healthy eating. She clearly is proud of it, and is asked about the garden everywhere she goes, her aides said. Embassies and organizations often call the White House with questions about how they can replicate it.

The kids to whom Kass refers are from local schools and are sometimes invited to the White House to help plant and harvest vegetables as part of Mrs Obama's campaign to stem childhood obesity. Kass says they often say they did not like certain vegetables - peas, lettuce, spinach - until they ate the fresh veggies they harvested from the garden.

"They've never seen what broccoli looks like or where peas come from," Kass said.

Last year, the White House garden produced 55 kinds of fruits and vegetables and 455 kilograms of food, about half of which went to local charities. Although the crop was not large enough to feed guests for state dinners, some of its herbs were used for seasoning.

The patch of lawn includes a bee hive tended by a carpenter who has worked at the White House for more than two decades and tends bees on the side. The hive has produced 60 kilograms of honey so far, and Mrs Obama packaged some of it as gifts to the spouses of the world leaders who attended the G20 summit in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, last year.

The honey also has found its way into the White House kitchen. Presidential chefs have used it for honey cupcakes and honey vinaigrette salad dressing.

The chefs are harvesting the garden year-round. When snowstorms hit Washington early this year, Kass and his staff kept the veggies warm by setting up "hoop houses," plastic covers that trap heat from the sun. In early March, the chefs picked lettuce, spinach, turnips, arugula and carrots grown through winter.

Kass, who cooked for the Obamas in Chicago, said the garden is partly tended by White House volunteers who shed their suits for jeans and periodically work in the dirt.

He said there have been very few problems in the garden, save some hungry squirrels who sneaked a few ripe tomatoes and some pumpkins that did not turn out quite right. It includes some lettuces grown from seeds and sprouts that originated in the garden of Thomas Jefferson, America's third president in the early 1800s.

Kass and aides to Mrs Obama will not elaborate on why the garden is not technically organic. "What's really powerful about this garden is it shows kids where food comes from," he said.

One thing that will not be added? Eggs.

"We are not going to have chickens on the White House lawn," Kass confirmed.


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