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Now there's a new way for Michelle Obama to keep her buff arms in tip-top shape -- by hoeing, planting, and weeding in the freshly dug White House vegetable garden. But while exercise is a wonderful added benefit of tending to this 1,100-square-foot plot on the White House's South Lawn, it is not a focus of the first lady's pet project. The garden, which will supply the White House kitchen with organic fruits, vegetables, and herbs and donate additional crops to a DC food pantry, is setting an example for how American families can conserve environmental resources, save money, and eat healthfully.
Michelle Obama is not the first first lady who has tried to make a point with produce. Several past presidential families have planted gardens and built greenhouses on White House property. Eleanor Roosevelt's "Victory Garden" inspired many Americans to dig in to the dirt during World War II. Taking her cue, US families grew 40 percent of the nation's fruits and vegetables during that time, says Roger Doiron, founder of Eat the View, a campaign that helped secure the building of the Obama's White House garden. Before Roosevelt, President Woodrow Wilson and his wife set sheep to graze on the lawn at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as a cost-saving measure and an example of how Americans could conserve resources during a time of war.
And Doiron says, "We're at war again on a couple of fronts." For one, American highways have gotten more sophisticated and food is able to travel further -- "On average, 1,500 miles from field to fork," he explains. Our diet is fueled not by an "edible landscape" but by processed foods and produce that travels extremely far distances. The problem there? United States families pay far too much for produce, and we're using valuable environmental resources in the process.
Doiron and his wife, in an effort to save money and put better food on the table for their two young boys, planted a 1,600-square-foot garden on their 1/3-acre lot in Maine. They weighed the crops they harvested for one calendar year (over 35 varieties of produce), and compared their costs to the prices they would have to pay at local markets to get those same items. Their savings? A whopping $2,100!
Michelle Obama, who has said she has never had a vegetable garden before, will expect everyone -- including the president -- to help with the upkeep of the garden. The White House also enlisted fifth graders from a local elementary school to assist in breaking ground, and the kids will later help harvest and prepare the produce. "The first lady understands that food is not just a product, but a process," explains Doiron. By planting at the White House "she is inspiring more people to get involved in that process -- one of growing healthy and delicious food."
Here's a sampling of what Sasha and Malia (whose new swing set sits just beyond the organic garden), can expect on their plates once the produce is ready to be harvested. One thing they won't be feasting on? Beets -- the president is not a fan.Lettuces
Of the many varieties featured on the South Lawn -- one being the peppery, perfect arugula -- all are low calorie but make you feel full. (Eating a whole cup of shredded lettuce means you're ingesting just 5 calories!) Plus, the darker -leafed lettuces are high in vitamin A.Blueberries, Raspberries, and Blackberries
If Michelle wants her girls to get excited about the garden, what's more fun than picking their very own berries? These three are loaded with antioxidants, which will keep one of the youngest first families in White House history looking the part -- antioxidants are known to stave off the effects of aging.Peas
Mrs. Obama can improve her family's digestive health by having White House chefs, like assistant chef Sam Kass, the overseer of the garden, prepare the fresh peas planted in the garden. They pack 4 grams per half cup serving -- that's 20 percent of the recommended daily intake.Spinach
A side dish starring spinach yields an entire day's need of vitamin K, which builds strong bones. But if Sasha and Malia aren't so psyched about plain spinach, here's some good news: "Adding a little fat in the form of butter or cheese can increase the absorption of the nutrients from spinach," says Melinda Johnson, RD and National Spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.Fennel
Fennel is filled with potassium, which helps with fluid balance, says Johnson, making it the perfect antidote to a lot of fancy diplomatic dinners and four-course meals.Carrots
The first lady and her growing girls need vitamin A for sharp vision, healthy skin, and shiny hair. Carrots contain 620 micrograms per half cup serving, which exceeds the recommended daily allowance for girls ages 9 to 13 and falls just under what adult women need.Kale
Kale's curly leaves provide a bit of protein in addition to tons of other nutrients, notes Johnson. That's an unusual added benefit for a veggie.Herbs
Parsley, thyme, cilantro, and other herbs found in the Obama garden help curb the need to add salt to food while cooking.Broccoli
Although an interview with Oprah confirmed that she has no plans to add another baby to the Obama brood, the first lady would want to load up on broccoli if she ever changed her mind. It contains an essential nutrient for expectant moms: folate, which promotes healthy brain development in utero.
The startup seeds and other supplies for the White House garden rang in around $200. Doiron says even with that small amount of money the "First Lawn" has 55 varieties of produce planned during the growing season. How can beginner gardeners get started tilling their own soil? Here are some tips.
1. Know what will work in the climate you live in. Connecting online with gardening aficionados through kitchengardeners.org allows you to learn about what grows well in your area. Simply join and search for a group in your locale, or start one of your own.
2. Plant produce that you can build a meal around. Heartier items like squash, potatoes, and beans can substitute for meat and still be satisfying.
3. Add in herbs, spices, and hot peppers. Tasty addendums build flavor into your dishes -- without adding fat or salt.
4. Think ahead. "A new trend in gardening is that people are going to try to get a little more out of their garden (as a money-saving measure)," says Doiron. Grow tomatoes which you can toss into salads and slice for sandwiches during the summer. Later, pick some more to make sauces with that you can freeze for the winter.
5. Salad greens are surefire money savers. Growing lettuce is relatively simple and you can conserve cash quickly. Organic greens are pricey at the market (a 5-ounce package of Earthbound Organic Farms Baby Lettuce Mix costs $3.89 on Freshdirect.com), but they can be harvested from seed in about a month and will keep growing once picked. The online retailer, Johnny's Selected Seeds (johnnyseeds.com), sells salad mixes which will yield a variety of different lettuces from one packet.
6. Get some exercise in the process! Gardening is a total body workout, says Mark Occhipinti, PhD, President of American Fitness Professionals and Associates. Not only does it raise your respiratory rate, but it works your core muscles, virtually all of your back muscles, biceps, triceps, glutes, and leg muscles. Be careful to avoid injury though, Occhipinti warns. Don't go full force in your garden on the first couple of nice days. Start slow by walking around your neighborhood for 20 minutes, and then dig in.
Originally published on FitnessMagazine.com, April 2009.