WASHINGTON -- While the rest of his classmates were stuck in school Thursday, Emilio Vega, 11, planted bread wheat seeds with first lady Michelle Obama in her garden on the South Lawn of the White House.
"It was really exciting. She's very nice and she's really good at what she does with the seeds and everything," said Vega, a fifth-grader at B.D. Gullett Elementary in Bradenton.
Gullett Elementary students traveled to Washington for the fifth annual garden planting as one of four elementary schools chosen as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's HealthierUS School Challenge. The challenge, which recognizes schools that promote healthy environments with monetary awards, is incorporated with the first lady's Let's Move! initiative that she launched in 2010. Gullett Elementary Principal Kathy Hayes selected the five students based on leadership positions they hold at school. Schools from Massachusetts, Tennessee, Vermont and the District of Columbia also attended the event.
For Gullett fifth-grader Robby Goecker, 11, traveling to Washington for the first time was made even more exciting by getting to meet Obama. "It's an honor for Manatee County schools to be recognized like this," he said. "It was a very overwhelming experience, and I thank Michelle Obama for letting us have this opportunity."
Gullett was chosen based on its implementation of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which set policy for school nutrition programs. Regina Thoma, the school's dietician, said all of the Manatee County elementary schools have qualified for grants through the challenge because of their nutrition programs, which include mandating that each child is served at least a half-cup of fruits or vegetables at lunchtime.
"The parents want (the lunch program) one way and the kids want it another way, so it's kind of funny because sometimes we try different products and the parents are thrilled, but it's how to get the kids to eat it, so we do a lot of sampling and taste-testing," Thoma said.
Skye Grundy, Gullett's nutrition specialist, said, "We've always put a lot of fruits and vegetables out for the kids to choose from." Grundy said that food choices each day include at least two types of fresh fruit and hot and cold vegetable options. "It's not just apples and oranges," she adds. "I thought getting kids to eat the half-cup of fruit or vegetables would be more of a hurdle, but going from white to wheat has been harder."
The students enjoyed a picnic lunch alongside the garden before getting to work. White House assistant chef Sam Kass placed the students into groups and led the planting along with the first lady, who addressed the students before starting.
"The schools from across the country who have come, you guys are here because you are doing such wonderful things to implement the new school nutrition standards at your school," Obama said.
"I was surprised that not only were we gardening, but Mrs. Obama was right beside us and helping us. I thought we were going to be alone, but we were with plant specialists and the chef, too!" said Morgan DeGlopper, 11, a fifth-grader at Gullett. DeGlopper, who is used to gardening at home, was specifically impressed with Obama. "I mean, most people, they don't want to get dirty if they don't have to, but she got down with us and started helping. That was really cool."
Two of DeGlopper's classmates, Ishvina Singh and Noa Antuna, agreed.
And it wasn't only the kids who were surprised with the first lady's involvement. After the planting was over, Obama chatted with the chaperones and parents who had accompanied the children, offering hugs and signatures.
"She's just so gracious, it's crazy. You can tell she really enjoys it," Thoma said after speaking with Obama. "Wow, that was just crazy."