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American Grown by Michelle Obama

The first lady gives readers a tour of the White House Kitchen Garden and other thriving community plots across the country.

By Staff Writer / June 11, 2012

Quentin Bacon Photography

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Eleanor Roosevelt advocated for the poor. Jacqueline Kennedy ushered in culture. Nancy Reagan taught children to "Just Say No" to drugs. Laura Bush focused on early childhood development. While their presidential husbands fought wars, political battles, and tried to steady wavering economies, the first ladies of America have found their own outlets for leadership, often drawing national attention to domestic causes with the purpose of strengthening families and communities.

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Kendra Nordin is a staff editor and writer for the weekly print edition of the Monitor. She also produces Stir It Up!, a recipe blog for CSMonitor.com.

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Michelle Obama has found her own noble cause right at the root level with a gardening and simple cookbook, American Grown. In her first book, she chronicles the transformation of the White House's South Lawn into a working kitchen garden. With the help of White House staff, the National Park Service, volunteers, and scores of local school children, she turns over what was once a stretch of grass into fertile soil for sprouts, beans, berries, lettuces, corn, squash, and a variety of herbs. There is even an active honey beehive nearby, strapped down to withstand the winds of the presidential helicopter, Marine One.

While a little patch of edible plants may not seem remarkable, "American Grown" serves as an off-shoot of Mrs. Obama's broader goal of teaching children the fun of healthy living. Her "Let's Move!" program has set the ambitious goal of solving childhood obesity within a generation. The statistics are sobering: Nearly 1 in 3 children in America are overweight or obese. In African-American and Hispanic communities the numbers are even higher, with nearly 40 percent of children overweight or obese. Normal activities that a lot of Americans grew up with – gym class and after-school sports programs – aren't always an option for school children today. The spread of convenience foods and sedentary video games has taken a toll on natural, youthful activity. “American Grown” strives to show that hard physical work + patience = pride of accomplishment and delicious, healthy meals.

The first lady's focus on the joys of discovering the better taste of locally grown food comes out of her own experience. Raised in the South Side of Chicago in a small apartment, she had little opportunity to learn about growing food during her childhood. "Vegetable gardening wasn't exactly a common pastime in the neighborhood where I grew up," writes Mrs. Obama.

As she began to raise her daughters, Malia and Sasha, their family pediatrician urged her to incorporate more vegetables and fruit into their meals. So Mrs. Obama made a radical change in what they ate and where they bought it. Heading to the farmer's market toting canvas bags to buy local fresh, produce opened a new world and planted the seed of creating a teaching moment for the nation’s youth well before her move into the White House.

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