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Image: White House garden
Manuel Balce Ceneta  /  AP
Mustard and other vegetables and herbs flourish at the White House garden, which is home-grown and healthy but isn't organic. "This is not about getting into all that," Assistant White House Chef Sam Kass said of the organic label. "This is about kids."
updated 4/27/2010 2:13:46 PM ET 2010-04-27T18:13:46

The White House kitchen garden is surely home-grown, but it isn't organic, and there aren't any plans for it to be.

Assistant White House Chef Sam Kass, an old friend of President Barack Obama's who oversees the garden, says labeling the crops "organic" isn't the point, even though the White House only uses natural, not synthetic, 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 Monday 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 part of first lady Michelle Obama's pitch for healthy eating. She is clearly proud of it and she is asked about the garden everywhere she goes, her aides say. 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 don't like certain vegetables — peas, lettuce, spinach — until they eat the fresh veggies they harvested from the garden.

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

A 'remarkable year' of gardening
Last year, the White House garden produced 55 kinds of fruits and vegetables and 1,000 pounds of food, about half of which went to local charities. Though the crop wasn't 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 134 pounds of honey so far, and Mrs. Obama packaged some of it up as gifts to the spouses of the world leaders who attended the G20 summit in Pittsburgh 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.

Image: White House garden
Manuel Balce Ceneta  /  AP
Thyme and other vegetables and herbs are grown at the White House garden in Washington, D.C.
The chefs are harvesting the garden year-round. When snowstorms hit Washington earlier 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 the winter.

Kass, who cooked for the Obamas in Chicago, says the garden is partly tended by White House volunteers who shed their suits for jeans and come down to the lawn periodically to 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 didn't turn out quite right. It was a "remarkable year," he said.

Video: Breakfast at the White House No chickens on White House lawn
This spring, the garden expanded from 1,100 square feet to 1,500 square feet and features a wide variety — broccoli, rhubarb, carrots, spinach, cauliflower, peas and collard greens. There are even some lettuces grown from seeds and sprouts that originated in Thomas Jefferson's garden.

Coming soon: corn, beans, cantaloupe, pumpkins, leeks and artichokes. Kass says they might even try their hand at pickling some cucumbers and beans for the first family.

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Kass and aides to Mrs. Obama won't elaborate on why the garden isn't technically organic.

"What's really powerful about this garden is it shows kids where food comes from," he says. "It's captured attention around the world."

One thing that won't be added to the expanding patch of land? Eggs.

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

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Michelle Obama: Obesity is ‘solvable’

  1. Closed captioning of: Michelle Obama: Obesity is ‘solvable’

    male announcer: being yourself.

    >>> we're back now at 8:08 with more of our exclusive interview with first lady michelle obama . we had the chance to talk to her about a number of topics, including her new initiative to fight childhood obesity and how her husband juggles the pressures of the presidency with everyday family life .

    >> he is still an optimistic person at heart. he doesn't bring the problems of the oval office to the residence.

    >> and you like that. you like the fact that there's a separation between what happens in that office during the day and the family quarters.

    >> well, i think that's part of the challenge in the lines that you have to draw when you live above the shop, as they say.

    >> right.

    >> we do it mostly for our kids, you know, so that they have a normal family environment. and i think it's also a pressure reducer for us. when you sit around the dinner table, you walk into the door and everything goes away except for what's right before you -- your kids, their issues, their challenges, their questions.

    >> you said something recently, and i liked it as the father of three kids, and two of mine are close to the age of malia and sasha. you said one of my greatest accomplishments over the last year is that my kids are sane, and they are the same kids today that they were when they moved to the white house . how much of an effort did that take, or has it taken?

    >> it's taken a great deal of effort and focus. it's been important to me their entire lives, because you don't just arrive at the presidency. i mean, there's a long pathway of sort of interesting life decisions that go along with it. so, barack and i have always been mindful that we want to make sure that the choices we make as adults, as parents, don't negatively affect our kids' lives, so that's --

    >> is it impossible for this choice to not negatively impact them in some way?

    >> right now it feels good, you know. little kids, you're just hoping that you're not messing them up, right? and we only know the outcome when they're 25 and out of the house and living decently, right?

    >> right.

    >> so, i, you know, i make no claims this early, but they seem like they're doing great.

    >> you've just taken on a new initiative, and it's right up your alley not only as first lady, but as a mom, and that is the issue of childhood obesity , which is a real problem in this country. why did you decide that that would be an issue you wanted to get involved with?

    >> well, there are the shocking statistics that are there. one in three kids are obese in this nation. the most shocking sort of reality that really hits you, that because of these statistics, the youngest generation is on track for the first time in this nation's history of being less healthy, having a shorter lifespan than their parents. you know, when we're talking about the future, we are talking about the health of our kids, but i also know as a mom, i can see how we got there or some of how we got there. i can see how the burdens and pressures of modern day life just really -- we live differently.

    >> you mean, as a working mom, feeding your own girls before the white house ?

    >> right, exactly. it is very hard when you're working, you're trying to get kids to activities, you're tired, you're stressed, to come home and even know how to prepare a three-course, healthy meal or have the time or the energy to do it. and slowly, we start making choices, kids stop walking, there's fewer opportunities to play, more computer time --

    >> more stops at the fast-food --

    >> more stops, and before you know it, you have a problem. so, it's not that parents don't care. it's just that we've got to help them.

    >> i'm glad to hear you say that you're not pointing the finger of blame, because i think parents feel so guilty.

    >> oh, gosh.

    >> you start talking about the health of their kids --

    >> that's right.

    >> -- and those working parents you just talking about, some are working two jobs.

    >> absolutely.

    >> they're working overtime to make ends meet.

    >> absolutely.

    >> they're saying i'm doing the best i can and i don't need someone holding me up as an example.

    >> absolutely right, and i certainly wouldn't have responded well to it because we all love our kids. this is intimately solvable. this isn't going to require new technology. we don't have to put a man on the moon.

    >> when you say it's solvable, you don't want to just talk about it, you want to see some results. so, at the end of three years, or if you're lucky enough, seven years, if that rate is 33% today of children who are either overweight or obese, what can you knock that down to? what's your goal?

    >> well, we're still working on benchmarks, because we want to have ambitious goals, but we want to have attainable goals. our broad goal is going to be to change the health status of an entire generation.

    >> i read that around the family dinner table you go through roses and thorns --

    >> yeah.

    >> okay, so, roses and thorns, for the people out there who don't know, you basically say what good thing happened to me today and what bad thing happened to me today. so, what's the best thing that happened to you today and what's the worst thing?

    >> oh, wow. well, the best thing is always dinner time , so it hasn't happened yet. but you know, we had a series of very good conversations around the lunch, meetings with folks who were really ready to roll up their sleeves in a non-partisan way and do something for our kids, and that's a big rose.

    >> what's a thorn ?

    >> i haven't had a thorn yet. well, i walked upstairs and my daughter had an issue, you know, and it wasn't a big issue, but i'm coming up, changing and --

    >> school issue, friend issue?

    >> right. it's just, you know, and of course, you're like, what is the matter? you're not happy? but you know, if i had to pick a thorn , it would be that, but it really doesn't rise to the level of a thorn .

    >> a tiny little thorn .

    >> right. it's a really itty-bitty thorn .

    >> see, she wasn't being very honest there --

    >> you thought the thorn would be my interview?

    >> right there.

    >> i know you. what's your rose and thorn so far?

    >> being here with you, both.

    >> it's not even worth the

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