Local students plant garden with First Lady
By Elizabeth Sheeran
Not every fifth-grader can say they’ve shared some dirt with Michelle Obama. But five lucky kids from Somerville’s Arthur D. Healey School travelled to Washington, D.C. last week to help the First Lady plant the White House kitchen garden.
Mrs. Obama invited Somerville schoolchildren because the city is a leader in promoting healthy eating at school, and the district selected five Healey students who have shown a keen interest in gardening and nutrition: Brian Chan, Ariana Docanto, Gabriela Lopez, Lana Popovic and Sarah Sweeting.
“It was extraordinary. It was unforgettable, meeting the First Lady and getting to garden at her house and with her,” said Sarah Sweeting, who like her fellow garden ambassadors from Somerville said she spends a lot of time in the Healey School Garden.
The Healey School was one of only four in the country invited to travel to the capital for this year’s planting, along with two D.C. schools that regularly help tend the garden. Mrs. Obama first planted a vegetable garden at the White House in 2009 to promote healthy eating, and the 1,100-square-foot plot has yielded more than 3,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables, used for Obama family meals, state dinners, soup kitchens and food pantries.
For the five Healey students, gardening with the First Lady was the highlight of a day they all said they would never forget. Arriving at the White House, they were escorted into the diplomatic reception area of the East Wing, which Brian Chan described as “first-class, like a five-star hotel.”
There they lunched on turkey and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, apples and apple cider. Then they headed outside to the South Lawn to meet Mrs. Obama and the White House kitchen staff, and got down to business planting 15 beds with a variety of produce, including spinach, cabbage, carrots, radishes, and wheat.
The kids were especially taken with the First Lady, who by all accounts made a point of spending time with each one of them.
“She wasn’t anything like I thought she would be,” said Lana Popovic. “When I met her, she just seemed like she could be a friend.”
“She’s was just so nice and kind and easy-going,” said Sarah. “She was really relaxed. She wasn’t uptight or anything. She was just talking like a normal person and I thought that was really awesome of her.”
“She’s a very good woman,” said Gabriela Lopez. “She’s kind. She’s gentle. She’s tall. She’s beautiful. She’s someone who’s very nice to kids.”
Ariana Docanto had the special honor of being in Mrs. Obama’s workgroup. “I felt like I was in a dream,” said Ariana. The fifth grader and the First Lady found they shared the same favorite color, purple, and went on to compare notes on favorite vegetables: Mrs. Obama likes kale; for Ariana, it’s cucumber.
Ariana said the First Lady knows her stuff in the garden, and gave her some tips on planting spinach. “She taught me, don’t be afraid to dig it too deep, because that’s what makes it grow bigger and healthier.” And she said Mrs. Obama talked to her about why she chose Somerville. “She said Mayor Curtatone is working hard for us and he made a lot of changes to our lunches and health and stuff like that,” said Ariana.
Somerville’s efforts to promote healthy lifestyles have been a model for the First Lady’s Let’s Move! initiative to combat childhood obesity. “Without a doubt, we have always been ahead of the curve,” said Lauren Mancini, food and nutrition director for the Somerville Public Schools, who said the city already exceeds new federal school nutrition guidelines.
The First Lady’s office commended Somerville for improving its school lunch menus to include even more fresh produce, providing healthy snack options, connecting food education to gardening and farming, and extending nutrition education to programs outside the classroom.
“When I first came to Somerville I was amazed by all the healthy food, like the salad bar,” said Brian, who came to the Healey School in third grade. “They didn’t have juice or chips, which I usually see at lunches. They have fruits and all these vegetables, which I think is a really good thing.”
For Brian and the other four Healey students who just got the chance to tend the most famous backyard garden in the nation, their own schoolyard garden is a point of pride.
“Our garden is great,” said Lana. “It motivates people to eat healthier and it basically shows kids that healthy food tastes great too, not only junk food.”
And they were all proud to represent Somerville and to realize the city had been recognized nationally for it’s healthy choices.
Said Brian, “I know we’re healthy and all that stuff, but I was amazed they chose Somerville, because we’re such a little town.”