LAKEWOOD RANCH — Gullett Elementary School’s Emilio Vega has only known English for two years, but he can speak first lady Michelle Obama’s language fluently.
He and Obama conversed easily about kale, whole-grain pizza crust and childhood obesity April 4, as they worked side-by-side planting the White House Kitchen Garden to promote the first lady’s HealthierUS Schools Challenge.
Emilio, a Colombia native, placed seeds into the open palms of Obama, whose green gardening gloves and gray gym shoes spoke to her willingness to get dirty.
Emilio and four other Gullett fifth-graders — Noe Antuna, Robby Goecker, Ishvina Singh and Morgan DeGlopper — spent the afternoon with the first lady.
Gullett and Willis Elementary schools in Lakewood Ranch earned a gold distinction in the HealthierUS Schools Challenge, for which the schools applied last year. The award, part of Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, recognizes schools that promote a healthy environment through nutrient-rich foods and physical activity.
That gold designation also earned each school $2,000 — enough to pay for the two-day trip. Students from Gullett represented both East County schools.
The five students from Gullett, joined on the trip by their parents and two school district employees — Skye Grundy, nutrition specialist and dietitian, and Regina Thoma, assistant director of food services — were among 30 children from across the nation, representing four schools, who helped Obama in her fifth annual garden-planting event at the White House south lawn.
The group caught a 4 a.m. flight April 3, to Washington, D.C., and spent its first day touring Washington landmarks, including the Lincoln Memorial, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and “the pencil,” the students’ code name for the Washington Monument.
They checked into the Mayflower Renaissance Hotel on Connecticut Avenue, and rose at 9 a.m. the next morning and walked to the White House; they were the first to arrive.
Two Secret Service men trailed the group into the White House’s Diplomatic Reception Room, where the students noticed a rug imbedded with emblems of the 50 states.
After 20 minutes of waiting for the other schools, Obama greeted the students. Then, for 30 to 45 minutes, the group planted two kinds of lettuce, carrots, kale and radishes.
The Secret Service continued to shadow the students throughout the planting process.
One of two students to be selected to work side-by-side with Obama, Emilio learned one-third of the vegetables they would plant go to the hungry.
“It was just luck I got to work with her,” he said. “This was a once-in-a-lifetime big opportunity.”
Emilio learned Obama’s favorite vegetable: kale.
He planted wheat and spinach and exchanged wisdom about grains with Obama.
“It really tastes similar to white (bread),” Emilio said.
“I thought she (Obama) would just stand there, but she sat down with us and did everything,” Ishvina added.
When the planting finished, Obama got off the ground and hugged each of the fifth-graders.
She pulled out a Sharpie and autographed the back right corner of the group’s green B.D. Gullet Elementary T-shirts.
The First Lady also told the fifth-graders to write her letters, so they could continue to exchange healthy habits.
Contact Josh Siegel at [email protected].