KODIAK — I’ve had the pleasure to read, or should I say, listen to Michelle Obama’s new book, “Becoming.” It’s a delightful insight into the life of the former First Lady. I especially enjoyed learning the story behind her keen interest in children’s health and gardening.
First, I’ll set the scene: In 2009, when Barack Obama took office as the 44th President, nearly a third of American children were overweight or obese. Kids were being diagnosed at record rates with high blood pressure and type two diabetes, a disease that was unheard of when I was growing up in the ’50s and ’60s.
Over the previous 30 years, rates of childhood obesity had tripled. Now, obesity shows up in all walks of American life. Even military leaders, she says, were reporting that obesity was one of the most common disqualifiers for service.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. You might wonder why Michelle took on gardening as her first real effort as First Lady, especially since she had never sowed a radish seed in her life.
“I didn’t want to be some sort of well-dressed ornament who showed up at parties and ribbon cuttings,” she said. “I wanted to do things that were purposeful and lasting.”
Turning to experts, the Obama family learned to eat better at home and later at the White House.
“I now knew that strawberries were their most succulent in June, that darker-leafed lettuces had the most nutrients, and that it wasn’t so hard to make kale chips in the oven,” she said.
Kodiak gardener Heather Johnson couldn’t agree more with Michelle’s effort to eat healthy. “Eating a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables is a big priority for my family. We would rather maintain health than chase health. That is why we garden, well that and it tastes amazing, too.”
Michelle was pleased to see her two daughters eating things such as spring pea salad and cauliflower mac-and-cheese. There was a dark side to food, however.
“Most of what we knew about food,” she said, “had come through food industry advertising on everything boxed, frozen or otherwise processed for convenience, whether it was in snap-crackle TV jingles or clever packaging aimed at the harried parent dashing through the grocery store.
“Nobody, really, was out there advertising fresh, healthy stuff — the gratifying crunch of a fresh carrot or the unparalleled sweetness of a tomato plucked right off the vine.”
Planting a garden at the White House was her response to this problem, and she hoped it would signal the start of something bigger as her husband focused on improving access to affordable health care. The garden represented a way to offer a parallel message about healthy living.
In speaking on these topics from the White House, Michelle was sending a clear challenge to the giant corporations in the food and beverage industry; primarily about how they’d been doing business for decades.
Michelle’s idea for a garden plot was met with some resistance from the National Park Service. It had been decades since a White House Victory Garden had been planted, on Eleanor Roosevelt’s watch. Eventually, she and her staff secured an L-shaped 1100 square foot plot on the South Lawn, in plain view of tourists gawking at the White House. Elementary students helped with the digging.
With all the garden’s visibility, Michelle was, like every beginner gardener, a little anxious.
“Because with a garden you never know for sure what will or won’t happen — whether anything in fact, will grow,” she said.
On the day of planting, Michelle knelt with a bunch of fifth graders as they carefully transplanted seedlings into the ground, patting the dirt into place around the fragile stalks.
“I loved being with children. It was, and would be throughout the entirety of my time in the White House, a balm for my spirit, a way to momentarily escape my First Lady worries, my self-consciousness about constantly being judged. Kids made me feel like myself again,” she said.
They planted lettuce, spinach, fennel and broccoli; carrot seeds and collard greens; onions and peas.
“I didn’t know, the same way I didn’t know what lay ahead for us in the White House, nor what lay ahead for the country or for any of these sweet children surrounding me,” she said.
“All we could do then was put our faith into the effort, trusting that with sure and rain and time, something half-decent would push up through the dirt.”
Marion Owen has over 30 years of experience as a teacher and columnist. She’s on a mission to help busy people enhance their daily lives. To contact Marion or to sign up for her “Goodness from Kodiak” newsletter, go to her blog at MarionOwenAlaska.com.