A first lady forges a local food legacy

Former First Lady Michelle Obama emerged as a leader in the local produce movement during the past eight years as part of her efforts to fight childhood obesity, and the mission is likely to remain an important one for the self-proclaimed “mom in chief” in her post-White House years. Her passion for the cause inspired chefs, urban gardeners and families around the country, and it's a legacy that appears destined to continue into the future.

Last week, new First Lady Melania Trump said she plans to keep the White House gardens as is, including the high-profile Kitchen Garden created by her predecessor. The garden grows fresh fruits and vegetables that go into meals at the White House as well as a local food bank, and it has served as an outdoor classroom for local school children since its inception.

Obama broke ground on the garden on March 20, 2009 on the South Lawn of the White House, two months after her family had moved in. She planted the first veggies even before she launched the Let’s Move! campaign, and the plot that would come to be associated with her and her passion for helping kids get healthy was her first-ever attempt at a garden, as she details in her 2012 book American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America.

Obama and 23 fifth graders from a Washington, D.C., school planted the first crops and then waited. “We put in lettuce and peas, spinach and broccoli, kale and collard greens. And for days after that, I would look at the freshly turned soil and wonder to myself, is anything growing?” she writes in the book.

As it turned out, there was no need to worry. The garden produced bountiful crops of local produce and gave area schoolchildren a place to till the soil and learn about where their food comes from. The plot grew with the help of White House chefs, experienced gardeners from the National Park Service and volunteers.

Last fall, just weeks before the election, Obama unveiled an expanded version of the garden that includes a stone-paved seating area, an archway cemented into the ground and wood and steel features with historic significance, Politico reported. The new elements were chosen because they’re sturdy and durable, highlighting the soon-to-be-former first lady’s hopes that the garden and its mission would remain intact in future administrations.

The legacy goes deeper than just one garden. The Let’s Move! movement came along as the local produce trend was catching hold nationwide.  Obama’s 2012 book details the history of local produce, from trucks that used to sell fruits and vegetables door-to-door to the World War II victory gardens. The trend fell out of favor with the rise of supermarkets that boast a year-round supply of imported fruits and vegetables, but it has been on the rise again in recent years.

“Teachers, parents and students have started school gardens,” she writes. “Neighborhood gardeners are growing crops for local food banks. And people from all walks of life and every sector of our society are coming together and using gardens – and the food they grow and lessons they teach – to build a healthier future for our children.”

Obama’s efforts expanded to include Chefs Move to Schools, a call for chefs to partner with schools to share their expertise on food, nutrition and healthy eating.  She has also served as honorary chair of the Partnership for a Healthier America, a non-partisan non-profit launched in 2010 with more than 225 partners collaborating to fight childhood obesity. Urban gardens, farmers markets, chefs and even supermarket chains including Whole Foods, Wegmans and ShopRite operators like Inserra Supermarkets are all playing a bigger role in the blossoming local produce movement.

The garden grew as a focus on kids’ health and nutrition took root in the restaurant industry as well. The National Restaurant Association and Healthy Dining launched the Kids LiveWell program in 2011, to help restaurants develop and promote nutritious, lower-calorie kids’ meals. The program launched with 19 restaurant chains, from Au Bon Pain to zpizza, and today more than 42,000 US restaurant locations are part of the effort.

While Obama is just starting to figure out what her next moves will be, according to the Washington Post, she has reportedly been booked for a guest starring role in the upcoming season of chef Gordon Ramsey’s cooking competition show for kids, “MasterChef Junior.”

_______________________________________________

If you enjoyed this article, join SmartBrief's email list for more stories about the food and beverage industry. We offer 20 newsletters covering the industry from restaurants to food manufacturing.