It’s harvest time for Melania Trump.
The first lady, more at home in Manhattan than among rows of crops, hosted local schoolchildren at the White House on Friday to harvest and replant the vegetable garden Michelle Obama rooted in the South Lawn — carrying on a symbolic piece of the Obamas’ food policy legacy.
Many in food circles had been concerned that Melania Trump and her fast-food-loving husband would not carry on Michelle Obama’s expansive kitchen garden, which has become an internationally recognized symbol of local food and the Obama administration’s push to promote healthy eating.
“I’m a big believer in healthy eating because it reflects on your mind and your body,” said Melania Trump, surrounded by about a dozen children in the garden on Friday afternoon. “I encourage you to continue to eat a lot of vegetables and fruits, so you grow up healthy and take care of yourself.”
After brief remarks, the first lady, dressed in a red plaid shirt, black pants and sneakers, joined the children in harvesting lettuce and kale, peas, radishes, Swiss chard and mustard. They also planted cabbage, cauliflower, turnips, carrots, spinach and kale, the White House said.
Melania Trump’s decision to continue the tradition of hosting children at the garden to aid in the harvest surprised some food advocates, especially after the Trump administration in May said it would relax elements of the school nutrition standards Michelle Obama had championed.
The Trump administration also recently stalled two other policies that were central to the Obamas’ efforts to promote healthier eating habits: It delayed a nationwide regulation to require restaurants to post calorie counts on menus, and pushed back the deadline for food companies to update the Nutrition Facts label on their products to list added sugars and present more realistic serving sizes.
“For Michelle Obama, the garden was paired with concrete improvements to federal policy and pro-health cultural shifts in America,” said Eric Kessler, senior managing director of Arabella Advisors, which advises major foundations involved in food policy. “When this White House holds a garden event, you have to assume it’s meant as a distraction from some policy shift that will make good food less accessible to families that need it most.”
During Barack Obama’s two terms in the White House, Michelle Obama held dozens of photo ops at the garden to promote its symbolic meaning, and regularly invited school children to assist her in planting and harvesting. While Michelle Obama was known to break a sweat during harvest, prying sweet potatoes out of the ground using a shovel or a garden hoe, the National Park Service maintained the garden on a daily basis. The park service, which maintains the White House grounds, continues to tend to the garden under the Trump administration.
Last fall, just weeks before the 2016 election, Michelle Obama made headlines by adding improvements to the garden to make it a more permanent fixture, giving it an archway, a seating area and stone-laden pathways.
“I take great pride in knowing that this little garden will live on as a symbol of the hopes and dreams we all hold of growing a healthier nation for our children,” she said in a speech before dozens of advocates, food industry leaders and others who had helped with Let’s Move!, her signature campaign to combat childhood obesity.
“I am hopeful that future first families will cherish this garden like we have,” she added.
Despite the worrying from advocates, the Trump White House made it clear early on that the first lady had no intention of doing away with the garden.
“As a mother and as the first lady of this country, Mrs. Trump is committed to the preservation and continuation of the White House Gardens, specifically the first lady’s Kitchen Garden and the Rose Garden,” Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, a senior adviser to Melania Trump, told CNN in February.
The White House chefs continue to cook with vegetables, herbs and fruit harvested from the garden, and donate fresh produce to local charities, a spokeswoman confirmed.
The White House beehive, also started by the Obamas, is still buzzing under the Trump administration.
The first lady sent the children home on Friday with gardening kits and honey from the hive to share with their families. “I hope you like it,” she said.