With additional reporting by Courtney Lamdin
Hannah Svenson instantly recognized the White House as she approached its northern face on a sunny Thursday morning.
“Is that what I think it is?” she asked.
When Wellness Coordinator Joanna Scott confirmed her suspicion, excitement ensued.
Hannah, along with fifth-grade classmates Cassie Allen, Nolan Deep, Will Muzzy and Sara Schmoll, traveled to Washington, D.C. from Milton last week to help First Lady Michelle Obama plant the White House Kitchen Garden.
The group from Milton, which also included Food Service Director Steve Marinelli, fifth-grade teachers Judy Brady and Chris Schmid, and five of the students’ parents, convened in lobby of the Crowne Plaza Hamilton early Thursday, April 4 for the walk to the White House.
There, the students recalled the meal they enjoyed the night before at the nearby famed Old Ebbit Grill and excitedly talked about the gift basket, brimming with donations of T-shirts, stuffed animals, maple syrup and even cuts of Vermont beef on ice, to present to the Obamas.
Before the half-mile walk to the White House, the group put on sweatshirts and jackets over their Milton Town School District T-shirts. The Vermonters were expecting a respite from the early spring chill, but they didn’t get one in the nation’s capital. The temperature hovered around 40 degrees that morning – but at least the sun was shining.
Eleven-year-old Nolan led the group with a colorful map. Along the way, Brady said how much she enjoyed visiting Washington, D.C. with the children, most first-time tourists.
“It’s so much more thrilling to see things through their eyes,” she said.
When the group arrived at the Hamilton on Wednesday night, Brady was charmed when a student pointed out the name included “Milton.”
“They see stuff that I don’t even notice,” she said.
From Pennsylvania Avenue, the students and their chaperones posed in front of the White House’s gates with signs spelling out the words, “Thank you.” The district will send copies of the photo to the donors who made their impromptu D.C. trip possible, Marinelli said. A handful of non-profits and companies donated just shy of $18,000 in less than three days for plane tickets, a two-night hotel stay and meals, he said.
Upon arriving at the White House, Secret Service agents accepted the gift basket from Schmid, thanked him and said they would personally deliver it to the Obamas.
After the students and teachers made it through White House security, they were escorted through the East Room. In the Diplomatic Room, the Obama family’s principal entrance and where large groups are normally welcomed, the Milton students noticed emblems of all 50 states on the rug.
Before they walked out to the South Lawn and garden, the students also passed the Oval Office. They could see inside, but the president was not at his desk, Will Muzzy noted.
In the garden, the Milton kids joined 25 other students from schools around the country. D.C.-area Harriet Tubman and Bancroft Elementary schools are frequent partners in White House activities, while Milton Elementary, Sarah Moore Greene Magnet Technology Academy in Knox County, Tenn.; Arthur D. Healey School in Somerville, Mass. and Benjamin David Gullett Elementary School in Bradenton, Fla. were invited because of their schools’ implementation of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the first lady said.
Before her arrival – and before dozens of members of local and national press outlets were on the scene – White House Chef Sam Kass served the students peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and apples, broke them into teams of three and assigned them a spot in the 1,700-square foot plot.
Kass is also executive director of Let’s Move, the first lady’s initiative to raise kids through nutrition and exercise. The Kitchen Garden, which Kass said provides thousands of pounds of produce for the First Family’s daily meals, special White House dinners and the nearby meal center Miriam’s Kitchen, is the first garden on White House grounds since Eleanor Roosevelt’s Victory Garden during World War II. The plots included spinach, wheat, garlic, kohlrabi and more.
Inviting students to help start the garden each year helps Let’s Move meet its ultimate goal – encourage children, in school and at home, to eat their fruits and vegetables. Letting kids create a meal – something Milton schools do well – helps, he said.
“We’ve seen schools; local, outside chefs and kids brainstorm meal ideas together, do tastings together, come up with the recipes and the menus they’re going to put on, and then kids are excited about it because they helped,” Kass said.
Participation in Milton’s hot lunch program is at more than 70 percent, Marinelli said. According to district data, hot lunch participation has increased 14 percent between July and April 2011 and 2013.
Events like the Community Dinner Series and cooking classes give students hands-on opportunities to plan, cook and serve meals, Marinelli said. The cook also led the schools’ Junior Iron Chef team to a win last April for preparing chickpea fritters, something many had never tried.
Michelle Obama reminded the students their schools’ innovation earned them the invite to the fifth annual planting.
In patterned jeans and canvas sneakers, Obama donned bright green work gloves and knelt over a plot to plant spinach. Students rotated among the dozen-plus raised beds, and Milton’s Nolan Deep ended up side-by-side the first lady.
“She just gave me gardening tips,” he said, like to avoid overwatering the fledgling plants and to ensure his garden’s soil is rich.
Nolan and his classmates said they weren’t nervous to meet Mrs. Obama, but their teacher Schmid admitted his heart was racing; he changed his shirt at least once before heading out the hotel doors.
All the Milton students got a hug from the first lady, thinking ahead and bringing a silver Sharpie to obtain her autograph on their dark blue T-shirts. Schmid also got a hug from Obama – a promise he made to his mother, he said.
Fifth-grader Sarah asked Obama what her favorite vegetables are, and she said, “Most of them.” Kass said First Daughters Sasha and Malia Obama also eat most everything he cooks for them.
After the planting event, Milton’s delegation was exhausted. The families and teachers split up and reconvened for dinner in Washington’s Chinatown.
With a Friday evening flight, they had one more day to enjoy the sights of the capital city before bringing their experience back to Vermont. Milton alum Tom Cheney, who now works for Rep. Peter Welch, gave them a tour of the underground tunnels from the Capitol Building to the Senate and House wings.
In just 36 hours, Milton students saw and learned more about D.C. than they could from sitting in classroom.
“The opportunity [showed them] to work a little harder and apply themselves,” Marinelli said. “Good things will happen.”