- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Between jokes about snap peas and a chant of “We wanna eat,” first lady Michelle Obama Tuesday used her new White House garden to teach kids good eating habits and worked in a policy plug for the president’s health care agenda.

During the harvest of her three-month old garden, Mrs. Obama made the case for including healthy school lunches in the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Program, along with encouraging school kids to eat fresh grown fruits and vegetables.

She and fifth-graders from the District of Columbia’s Bancroft Elementary picked lettuce and snap peas from the garden the first lady and the children started in March, and she urged them to be “little ambassadors” for healthy eating among their friends and families.

Eyeing the fresh salad, chicken and brown rice prepared in the White House kitchen with help from the students, Mrs. Obama said she wanted to reach a national audience and rattled off a list of statistics about the lack of nutrition in urban areas.

“Fresh healthy food is simply out of reach. … Food deserts leave too many families stranded,” she said, saying that many poor people must turn to convenience stories or fast-food restaurants for their meals.

Mrs. Obama said obesity, diabetes and other diseases cost the United States government $120 billion and said one-third of U.S. children are overweight or obese. The first lady added the rates for those problems are higher among black and Hispanic children.

“Those numbers are unacceptable,” she said.

She called for free school lunches for poor children to offer the “healthiest meals possible” and said that change can go “a long way” to helping kids stay healthy.

The nutrition reauthorization measure is expected to be considered by Congress this fall.

The policy discussion was a fleeting moment as the children laughed and learned about gardening and what vegetables are in season.

“Today is the culmination of a lot of hard work,” Mrs. Obama said. “This is our reward.”

The same children helped Mrs. Obama plant the garden in March and April, and White House assistant chef Sam Kass said the first lady intends to open up the garden to more visitors and to offer tours for children.

Mrs. Obama told the children to be careful with the knife as they cut heads of green leaf lettuce, and told them it may be covered with bugs so it would need to be washed thoroughly.

But later she popped a snap pea in her mouth and announced it was safe to eat since there are no pesticides used to tend the garden.

“Isn’t it sweet?” she asked, and the children agreed.

Maya Sotero-Ng, Mr. Obama’s half-sister, made a quick appearance at the garden event.

“I actually got to pick my dinner last night,” she said of the delicious green beans prepared by the White House.

Mrs. Obama said she started to pay attention to nutrition when she became a mother, in part because when she was growing up, fast-food was a rarity and dessert was for reserved for special occasions.

She said she learned children will eat something if it tastes good, and added vegetables and fruit taste better if they are fresh and grown locally. The first lady said the entire Obama family had more energy when they started to eat healthier foods.

Mrs. Obama added, “By making this whole process fun, these students have learned a little bit — not only about better choices, but educating their families about better ways to eat.”

The children earned cupcakes decorated with fresh berries for dessert, but Mr. Kass warned he needed to see them eat some salad before they would get their treat.

Mr. Hess boasted the chicken also was prepared in a healthy manner: “Breaded and baked, it’s the new fried.”

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