WASHINGTON – It was hard to miss the red and white gingham tablecloths, the lively green plants and the red and blue furry creatures jumping up and down above a pile of hay in the White House Kitchen Garden this week.

Children laughed as they ran around the tables, and the TV creatures shouted with excitement as First Lady Michelle Obama greeted them.

The "Sesame Street" characters joined the first lady and Washington elementary school students Thursday afternoon to harvest the garden one last time before President Obama leaves office. Even though this would be the last event like this during the Obamas' time in the White House, the garden will continue growing.

On Wednesday, Michelle Obama announced that the garden would become a permanent fixture on the South Lawn, thanks to a $2.5 million gift from the Burpee Foundation, a home gardening ­company.

Since 2009, the garden has been a centerpiece for the first lady's Let's Move program, aimed at decreasing childhood obesity. Donna Martin, president-elect of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, seven-time NBA All-Star Alonzo Mourning and Grammy Award-winning singer Ashanti joined the first lady in the garden, and "Sesame Street's" Elmo and Rosita added their opinions.

Equipped with shovels, baskets and gloves, the group picked vegetables from the garden and prepared grilled flatbread with basil purée and the vegetables as an example of a fresh and healthy meal.

"I take pride in knowing that this garden will serve as a reminder of what we all started, but also what we all have left to do," she said. "Healthy eating is starting to become the new norm for our kids."

Through Let's Move, Michelle Obama became a vocal supporter of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the first update in school nutrition standards in 15 years. The somewhat-controversial legislation expanded the U.S. Department of Agriculture's role in overhauling school lunch and breakfast programs, increasing funding and access to healthy food in low-income school districts.

"The kids who are here today represent so many parts of Let's Move and our program's initiatives," Obama said. Students from Bancroft Elementary School and Harriett Tubman Elementary School took part in the harvest, as well as a combined 14 students from seven schools that have established Let's Move programs.

She estimated that 50 million children have had access to healthier school meals because of Let's Move programming. Childhood obesity affects nearly 1 in 3 U.S. children, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Obesity rate dropping

But the first lady highlighted that the obesity rate is no longer on the rise; it dropped more than 40 percent among kids ages 2-5 from 2004 to 2012, according to the CDC. Still, about 17 percent of children ages 2-19 remain obese.

"Today, we just assume that we can find healthy options at the drive-through," Michelle Obama said. "So it's not surprising that childhood obesity rates in this country have stopped rising, and they've even started falling for our youngest kids."

The trademark Let's Move program has been debated by medical professionals and many in the Republican Party, however.

"If we really want to bring obesity numbers down, we have to focus on nutrition, not on exercise," said Dr. Agustina Saez, director of nutrition and policy at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. "(Obama) has made great changes in nutrition, like allowing tofu and soy yogurt, but processed meat is still served in every school." Studies by the World Health Organization have linked processed meat to cancer.