Who would have thought a little photo op would stir up so much dirt?
When First Lady Michelle Obama and fifth-grade students from a nearby elementary school broke ground on the White House lawn for a kitchen garden, it was one of those cute, end-of-the-evening-news “feel good”stories. The 1,100 square foot garden will include, among other things, spinach, broccoli, various lettuces, kale and collard greens, peas, onions and assorted herbs. Oh. And don’t forget the beehives. “We’re going to try to make our own honey here as well,”Mrs. Obama said.
For some foodies, this is the best news to come out from the Obama administration so far. A grassroots movement to start a national garden had been growing after food activist Michael Pollan proposed the idea in a rambling October 2008 New York Times Magazine article. He said gardens, like the one at the White House, help people reconnect with food and set a revolutionary example of healthful eating and a focus on local farming for the whole country. Pollan should be happy. His dream is coming true.
The White House garden will be totally organic. The harvest will help provide meals for the Obama family, White House workers and guests, including visiting dignitaries. The produce will also be distributed to Miriam’s Kitchen, a nearby center that provides food for the homeless. Mrs. Obama said the main goal of the garden is to educate children and influence communities to choose and prepare healthful food to help combat obesity. “This new garden will bring awareness to children, students and visitors about the important role of food, where it comes from, nutritional value, how it is grown and harvested and ultimately how it reaches the tables of those who need it most,” she said in a statement.
The whole Obama family, including the president, will pull weeds and water the garden. The total cost of the seedlings and fertilizer is $200. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, every $100 spent on vegetable gardening yields $1,000 to $1,700 worth of produce. For once, the American taxpayers may see some tangible returns from their investments.
This is the first White House garden since World War II, when Eleanor Roosevelt planted a Victory Garden on the White House lawn, inspiring people around the nation to conserve resources and grow gardens of their own. But that was a time of food shortages and when imports from other countries were scarce. During this time in America, with food prices on the rise and the nation’s economy in the compost heap, a White House garden might also be the right idea at the right time.
Whether it’s the economy, an interest in a sustainable lifestyle or just “keeping up with the Obamas,”an estimated 43 million Americans are planning a vegetable garden this year, up 19% from a year ago. (Yours truly will also be planting a garden, hoping to learn from mistakes made last year.)
Just days after Mrs. Obama broke ground for her garden, California’s first lady said that Sacramento is getting a public edible garden, too. Maria Shriver announced Monday that a garden will be planted in May in a flower bed on the east end of Capitol Park in Sacramento. Other states and localities are joining the cause with their own gardens, however it’s not clear how many of them are starting because of the economy or because they want to reconnect with nature.
So is 2009 the year that Victory Gardens return? We’ll be keeping a close eye on how the Obama garden grows.
(By the way, is there some reason the White House isn’t planting tomatoes?)