First Lady Michelle Obama got her hands dirty harvesting the White House Kitchen Garden Tuesday alongside students from a Coconino County charter school.
The STAR School in Leupp was one of only three schools outside the Washington, D.C., area invited this year to participate in the annual fall harvest of the vegetable garden planted by the first lady on the South Lawn of the White House in 2009.
“I’m happy that you guys are here to help me because we couldn’t get this done without you,” Obama said before the event.
Three fifth-graders, two sixth-graders, the food services manager and the school director from STAR School made the journey to the White House earlier this week. They cheered when Obama asked whether they were ready to start harvesting.
“Planting and harvesting at the White House was a great experience,” said STAR School sixth-grader Isaac Cook.
Fifth-grader Anthony Harvey described it as a dream that finally came true.
“It was fabulous,” said STAR School Director and CEO Mark Sorensen. “Mrs. Obama is really a down-to-earth person. She was there with a pitchfork digging out sweet potatoes with our students.”
In addition to STAR School, students from Willow Cove Elementary School in Pittsburg, Calif., and Greenview Upper Elementary School in Lyndhurst, Ohio, were invited to the annual harvest. All three were selected in honor of Farm to School Month because they participate in farm to school programs that incorporate locally grown foods into school meals.
Sorensen said it was a special honor for STAR School.
“It was amazing because there were only two other schools chosen in the country and both of those schools come from larger communities,” Sorensen said. “We are a small community on the edge of the reservation.”
Located about 25 miles outside Flagstaff near the southwest corner of the Navajo Nation, STAR School serves around 130 students in a community where diabetes and obesity are rampant. Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared the Navajo Nation a “food desert” due to a lack of affordable, nutritious food.
STAR School has been working to change all that by partnering with Navajo farmers to bring native foods into the classrooms and cafeteria. In fact, around 23 percent of the food served at STAR School is locally produced.
Students also learn how to grow their own healthy food in the school’s vegetable garden and prepare traditional Navajo dishes, like blue corn mush.
“One of the really valuable things for us is we get to teach the kids the value of traditional foods,” Sorensen said.
In 2013, the USDA awarded STAR School a $44,720 grant to create a plan that would bring the farm to school program to more than 200 other schools on the Navajo Nation. Being invited to the White House fall harvest, Sorensen said, was further proof his school was on the right track.
“It was the kind of thing that felt like validation of the things we do to encourage local farmers to feed local schools,” he said.
Sorensen added that seeing the Obamas valuing the healthy foods grown in the White House Kitchen Garden also helped reinforce the importance of healthy eating for his students.
“It was a great experience for them all,” he said.