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Book Talk: Michelle Obama on White House kitchen garden

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. first lady Michelle Obama has adopted healthy eating and fighting childhood obesity as one of her pet causes.
/ Source: Reuters

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. first lady Michelle Obama has adopted healthy eating and fighting childhood obesity as one of her pet causes.

Her first book, "American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America," tells of her experiences planting the first vegetable garden at the White House since Eleanor Roosevelt and shares other stories of other community gardens across the country.

Obama, who did not accept an advance and will donate all author proceeds to the National Park Foundation, sat down with Reuters before her first and only book signing, at a Barnes & Noble near the White House.

Q: What inspired you to write the book?

A: My own experiences being a mom, trying to feed my kids right. What I realized when I started making some simple changes like ... adding more fruits and vegetables. Getting the kids to farmers markets. Engaging them in the process of understanding where their food was coming from. They took an interest, and their health outcomes changed pretty dramatically.

I thought, if I don't know these things, what's going on in other households where people have less information, fewer resources? So I started thinking about how a garden could begin a really good conversation ... The book is another extension of the garden. It's open to the public and it's in a place where the public can see it. But there are so many people around the country who have heard about the garden, who are curious about it, and they'll never have the chance to see it.

I wanted it to be a beautiful book with wonderful pictures that would draw people in, particularly kids. We tried to make this book pretty user-friendly so that kids would open it up and get engaged just from the pictures. And we wanted to tell other stories ... There are thousands of wonderful community gardens all across the country. I had visited some and I wanted to tell that story too, and also use the book as a way to talk about the work that we're doing with childhood obesity and childhood health (the "Let's Move" initiative). So when we talk about that, we throw in a few recipes.

Q: Which is your favorite recipe?

A: I love the sweet potato bread. It's really good, and it's really moist. The corn soup is excellent. The linguine is good. The kids like the cauliflower mac and cheese, although I tell people to introduce kids to that early before they have the processed kind, because it's not as salty.

Q: What about the beehive? There was a concern about the proximity of the beehive to the White House and the president's basketball court.

A: Deep concern. Kids don't like bees - what kid likes bees? And then I've got this other kid, the president, and he doesn't like bees. It took a little convincing, but we had one of the staff who was a beekeeper. I assured everyone we would not be caring for the bees individually. We could just look from afar. Once we got the hive out there - it's up pretty high and it's not anywhere where (the dog) Bo could get to it, and it's very secure so it doesn't get knocked over by Marine One landing.

We all coexist very well together. The honey is amazing. I eat it almost every day in my tea with my snack. We give it as gifts. It's just a really good, personal touch. And it's delicious. We have brewed beer with it.

Q: After the Obamas leave the White House, what do you see the garden becoming or what do you hope it is?

A: I hope it's there forever. One of the beauties of the book is that all of the proceeds are going to go to the National Park Foundation, which is the foundation that will support the garden, hopefully forever. But it's really up to the next family that comes in. At least we have the legacy of what the garden has become, which is another reason why the book is so important.

Q: Any surprises? What was the biggest struggle with the garden?

A: We still struggle every day with it. Trying to figure out how to grow the right melon - we still haven't been successful with watermelon. Our pumpkins are still a little lame. We're doing some potatoes - I hope they turn out. This is the first season of red russets and different varieties. We won't know for another month or so how those are going.

Finding the proper structure for a public community garden (was hard). At first we didn't have beds that were enclosed, and we found that a big rain would come through and wash everything out. Fortunately we had gardeners who would help readjust everything. We found having those beds worked, especially since we have a lot of little kids coming through. It makes it easier for volunteers to come and not pull up the wrong thing.

Another surprise is how resilient gardens can be. They can be very fickle when it comes to the rain, but as I tell the kids, you can't break anything. It's dirt. That's why I've gotten so comfortable dealing with soil and dirt and plants and sprouts. Because you really have to try to mess it up. And that's the beauty. There's not much kids can get wrong.

They're in it to get dirty, they're in it to mess up. So there's a freedom that they have when they're in the garden that I really like. Especially when they're in the White House, it can be pretty intimidating. But you would be surprised at how little they focus on where they are. Instead they focus on what they're doing. Because they want to help, they want to engage. If they know that they can't damage anything ... it makes it just a fun experience for them.

(Editing by Jill Serjeant and Prudence Crowther)