When Michelle Obama decided to plant her first kitchen garden as first lady six years ago, White House chef and food policy guru Sam Kass was the man who made it happen.
“It’s something that the first lady and I had talked about for a long time, and this is a vision of hers that was the first thing we did when we got to the White House on the path to all the great work she’s done on health and nutrition; it all sort of grew from here,” Kass said during an exclusive tour of the newly planted White House kitchen garden with “Politics Confidential.”
Just like the garden, Kass’ role at the White House has grown. Initially coming to the White House as a chef, Kass soon took on the role as the executive director of the first lady’s “Let’s Move!” campaign and has steered an effort to make food options in the nation’s schools healthier.
“It has been a top priority for the first lady since the day we got here,” Kass said. “She works very hard, and we passed the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act, which raised the standards of food served in schools, and this fall … the standard for vending cart machines and a la carte lines is going to come into play. So, all the junk food in our vending machines is going to go away, and there will be healthier options for our kids.”
In addition to boasting a hearty variety of vegetables, herbs, and fruits, Kass explained that this year’s garden is also putting a special emphasis on flowering plants that are supportive to pollinators, like bees and butterflies.
“We’re facing a big crisis when it comes the bees and monarch butterflies and other pollinators, and they are pollinating … a huge amount of what we eat, so that's why we've got the bee hive – the first ever bee hive at the White House,” Kass said.
While having thousands of swarming bees on the White House grounds might make the Secret Service nervous, Kass pointed out that there’s an added benefit to having the hive: the honey.
“It's amazing,” he said, describing the honey. “We got about 200 pounds out of our hive last year.”
In the coming months, Kass said, he and his fellow White House chefs will put the garden to daily use in the meals they prepare for the first family and presidential guests. “It inspires everything that we cook,” he said.
Obama is hardly alone in tending to the garden, thanks to team of dedicated park service gardeners and White House volunteers, but Kass said she does come to visit with regularity.
“Every year we do the planting with school children, and then we'll have a harvest in June and another harvest in like September, October,” Kass said. “She's always doing that, and she comes down here all the time. This is like a favorite afternoon walk, early evening walk with the kids, the president comes down here.”
All that time in the garden seems to have made an impression on the president. On a recent trip to the Vatican, President Obama gave Pope Francis carrot seeds from the White House garden as a gift.
“It seems like a great gift to give the pope,” Kass said. “He's a deeply humble man, who's sort of salt of the earth, and I think the president was very excited to give him those seeds.”
To tour the White House kitchen garden for yourself, and to hear about the history of presidential gardening, check out this episode of “Politics Confidential.”
ABC News’ Richard Coolidge, Alexandra Dukakis, Hank Brown, and Vicki Vennell contributed to this episode.
- White House
- Sam Kass
- White House kitchen garden
- Michelle Obama