The Hagstrom Report

Agriculture News As It Happens


First Lady helps plant potatoes at White House garden

First Lady Michelle Obama, right, cuts up seed potatoes as Girl Scouts from New York state help plant the White House kitchen garden. Standing in background at left is White House assistant chef Sam Kass. (The Hagstrom Report/Jerry Hagstrom)

Planting her fourth White House kitchen garden, First Lady Michelle Obama personally cut up several varieties of seed potatoes today as reporters watched.

The first lady's role in planting the potatoes is remarkable because the Obama administration attempted to implement a rule that would have reduced the amount of white potatoes served in school meal program on the grounds that children should eat a broader variety of vegetables. After Congress passed a law forbidding the Agriculture Department to restrict the use of potatoes in schools, USDA was forced to rewrite the potato provision before the final rule was issued.

Welcoming groups of children from Washington, D.C., New York, Iowa, Pennsylvania and North Carolina to the South Lawn of the White House, Obama noted that the students from outside Washington "wrote some really nice letters telling us about stories of the work that you're doing in your schools, in your communities. And your letters were so wonderful, I thought, why not come and see me at the White House and help me plant my garden?"

She also noted that the garden is part of her "Let's Move" campaign to encourage healthy eating and exercise.

"The garden is a good way to start the conversation, because vegetables and fruits are a big part of a healthy diet," she said.

"And a lot of times when you grow your own vegetables and fruits, they taste really good. They taste better than a lot of stuff you'll get in a grocery store — trust me. My kids have done it."

The first lady did not mention potatoes in her remarks, but at the direction of White House Deputy Chef Sam Kass went directly to the potato section of the garden to help the Girl Scouts who were working there. Taking five different types of potatoes from net bags, the first lady cut the potatoes in half and handed them to the girls, who planted them and watered them. Signs said the potatoes were the following varieties: Sangre, Purple Peruvian Fingerlings, Mountain Rose, Red Thumb and and Canola Russet. (See descriptions below)

A spokeswoman for the first lady said that her participation in the potato planting, which was located in the first row of the garden directly in front of reporters, should not be interpreted as a political statement.

"I wouldn't read into her cutting up potatoes," the spokeswoman said. "I think we've always had potatoes."

Peter Hatch, a gardener at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home, who advises the White House on the kitchen garden, said that the potatoes were the only "New World" vegetable planted at this time of year.

The National Potato Council, which bitterly fought the administration's rule, said it was thrilled the first lady had planted potatatoes.

John Keeling, National Potato Council

John Keeling
NPC Executive Vice President and CEO John Keeling issued a statement.

"“America'’s potato growers are excited the first lady is helping educate children that healthy eating includes nutrient-rich potatoes," Keeling said. "Connecting kids with the food they eat is an important goal of the "Let’s Move!" initiative, and we're pleased that the White House kitchen garden is teaching children how seed potatoes grow into one their most loved vegetables.

"In addition, the wide variety of potatoes planted today demonstrates that these are exciting times for consumers who are looking to eat more veggies, including the new types of potatoes that share the produce aisle alongside old favorites," Keeling said.

After planting the potatoes, the first lady helped plant mustard greens. The spokeswoman said that the students also planted spinach, lettuce, radishes, chard, rappini, carrots, bok choy, broccoli and onions.

Monticello gardener Peter Hatch and his wife, Lou.
(The Hagstrom Report/Jerry Hagstrom)

Hatch noted that he and his wife, Lou, had brought several vegetables from Monticello: brown Dutch and tennis ball lettuce, sea kale, brussel sprouts, caracalla and tree onions, which have that name because the onions grow tall, fall over and plant themselves.

Hatch, author of A Rich Spot of Earth: Thomas Jefferson's Garden at Monticello, said that the potaotes did not come from Monticello.

He did note that a Marseille fig tree, a variety brought by Jefferson from France, appeared to be thriving.

The White House does not consider the garden to be organic, although the National Park Service staff that maintains it does not use synthetic fertilizers. The soil in the White House garden, Hatch said, has been improved, has plenty of earthworms and "is seething with life," Hatch said.

Potato varieties planted at the White House

Canela russet

Canela Russet (Colorado Potatoes)
Medium-maturing, fresh market variety released by Colorado State University. Resistant to external defects and disease. Long dormancy for long-term storage. Needs low amounts of nitrogen fertilizer.

Mountain Rose
New release from Colorado with red skin and red flesh, very high in antioxidants. Shows good promise as a specialty variety for chefs and market gardeners. Moist but not waxy texture, suitable for most uses. Resistant to second growth, hollow heart, shatter bruise, and some viruses.

Purple Peruvian (Potato Garden)
Purple through and through, small to medium tubers with many eyes. A true Peruvian variety that produces well in northern hemisphere. Mealiest of the fingerlings, good fried or roasted.

Purple Sun (also known as Peter Wilcox)
Bred at USDA/Beltsville for high levels of vitamin C and the antioxidant carotenoid. Round to oblong tubers with brilliant purple skin and dark yellow flesh, occasionally streaked with purple. Excellent for roasting or boiling. Excellent storage.


Red Thumb (Purcell Mountain Farms)
Relatively new fingerling, with brilliant red skin and unusual red flesh, recommended for a gourmet setting. Uniformity makes it a favorite among chefs.


(Maine Potato Lady)
Smooth, thick, red skin and white flesh, good boiling and baking qualities. Stores well, maintaining good skin color. Bulks up quickly, so good for early new potatoes. Resistant to hollow heart, moderately resistant to scab.

Photos and descriptions from growers