Thursday, February 5, 2009

White House Food Garden: Time to Go Back to School

It seems the whole world is badgering the Obamas to tear up part of the White House lawn and plant a food garden.

Kitchen Gardeners International started a petition called "Eat the View" that calls on the first family to plant a "victory garden" within their first 100 days in office. Michael Pollan, writing in the New York Times Magazine last year, proposed turning five acres of White House property into a farm, and a website in California got nearly 60,000 readers to vote on who should be the farmer. Now our friend Susan Harris, blogging at Garden Rant, has rolled out a whole cast of characters to design, advise on and maintain a White House kitchen garden.

Apparently the intent of all this activity aimed at the Obamas and their food habits is to inspire the rest of the country to eat better, support healthy agriculture and perhaps even plant a garden of their own. Being an avid kitchen gardener and local food advocate myself, I have a hard time arguing against people growing their own food. However, I do have a couple of issues with the proposal as currently constructed, and would like to offer an alternative suggestion.

First, unless President Obama is willing to declare war on the unholy corporate-government alliance that is responsible for this country's miserable diet, he looks a bit disingenuous feeding his family garden-fresh produce on the public dime. Before he can lay claim to the mantle of Gardener in Chief, the new president needs to demonstrate that he is willing to implement government policies that undo the choke hold that giant agribusiness has on this county's food production. So far we are getting some inklings of reform. But Obama's choice of Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa, drew a resounding Bronx cheer from the nation's food advocacy establishment. The new president still needs to establish his creds as champion of an alternate food system. (Obama's support of ethanol is hardly encouraging, but also not surprising, since he hails from Illinois, a major corn growing state. In fact, food and agriculture are not even listed on the Obama White House agenda.)

Second, do the Obamas really want to be in a position of saying, "Hey! Look at us! We're eating a whole lot better than you are!" It's one thing to lead by example. It's quite another to put yourself at odds with the way most of the country feeds itself. The last time the government encouraged people to plant gardens was during World War II when food was being rationed. It made sense for everyone to consider growing their own produce. But the government has no such policy in place. In fact, government policy has been to support agribusiness as we know it, which means tax dollars subsidizing a glut of corn and soybean products, the essence of our poor diet. Last time I looked, the president still represented the whole country, not just produce gourmands and local food fanatics. How does it look for him to be thumbing his nose at the good ol' regular food most people buy in the supermarket?

Third, there is something unseemly about the First Family luxuriating in a garden-fresh diet at a time when the country is in an economic tailspin and many families are just trying to hang on to their homes. Paradoxically, this would be a perfect time for millions of Americans to consider ditching their Turf Builder and planting a food garden instead. Growing your own food for the cost of some seeds saves a fortune in grocery bills. But sadly we are no longer a gardening culture. Those skills were lost with the passing of prior generations. Asking people to start busting sod on their own when the Obamas have a paid staff to do it for them is asking a bit much. If we want to rekindle the gardening spirit, we should do it with an all-out national undertaking and not lay it on the First Family.

Fourth, a sprawling food garden behind the White House would mark the Obamas as glaringly apart from their neighbors in the District of Columbia, where few residents have five acres--or even a fraction of that amount--at their disposal. In D.C., a meal for too many inner-city children consists of a bottle of artificially-flavored high-fructose corn syrup and a bag of potato chips from the corner convenience store. The poverty rate for school children ages 5 - 17 in the District of Columbia is 51.3 percent compared with 34.5 percent nationally, the highest in the nation. This translates into 56,000 children at risk of hunger in Washington, D.C., or 1 in 2 children. More than 12 percent of the city's households struggle with hunger. Some 109,000 residents are eligible to participate in the Food Stamp Program each month, however only two-thirds actually receive food stamps, and of those who do, 74 percent report that their food stamps do not last the entire month.

For all these reasons, past First Families have not spent much time advertising their personal eating habits. Little did we know that White House chefs were busy sourcing local, healthy foods, long before food celebrities such Ruth Reichl and Alice Waters and Danny Meyers started spouting their opinions about how the kitchen at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue should operate. The Clintons grew some of their personal food on the White House roof. Laura Bush was adamant that her family dine on organic products.

The Obamas, too, might appreciate a little privacy around their choice of victuals. But I have a suggestion that would allow them to get behind local food in a very public way without inviting a billion prying eyes into the backyard or private dining room: sponsor a school garden.

I'm surprised Alice Waters has not suggested this before. She's been talking for years about building one of her Edible Schoolyards in the nation's capital. The Obamas adopting a school garden would fit perfectly with what Agriculture Sec. Tom Vilsack has said are some of his department's highest priorities: improving child nutrition and giving schools greater access to local food. School gardens make perfect sense. If we are going to be a nation of healthy, sustainable eaters, we should teach it to our kids. This would be a great way for the Obamas to connect with the local community, and Lord knows our local schools could use the support. It would be an invaluable opportunity for teachers, school administrators and parents to close ranks around an issue of paramount importance, as well as a rare chance for Barack and Michelle Obama to learn on a personal level the kinds of challenges that public schools--and especially inner-city schools--face in their efforts to embrace healthy food.

The Obamas would learn, for instance, just how hard it is to turn local produce into meals where there are no cooking facilities. (School cafeterias are just glorified food lines any more. Perhaps after helping with the harvest, the president and first lady could take fruits and vegetables back to the White House and have their chefs do the cooking). Some schools don't even have soil: Everything has to be planted in containers. Still, even city kids love to work in the garden and eat the fruits of their labors. They need every opportunity they can get.

Talk about your shovel-ready projects. We've got plenty of schools. Just throw a dart at the map. We've also got numerous organizations that know just what needs to be done to make a model school food garden happen. There's D.C. Schoolyard Greening, a coalition of government and private groups the supports school gardens and helps incorporate gardening activities into the curriculum. There's City Blossoms, a group that specializes in building teaching gardens for children. There's the Washington Youth Garden, whose program centers on gardening with inner-city families and reaching out to city schools with nutrition and cooking lessons. There's the 7th Street Garden, an urban agriculture enterprise versed in all phases of fruit and vegetable production and committed to food security for the needy. There's Casey Trees, a non-profit intent on planting more fruit trees in the city in places where they will be well cared for. And now the Obamas have brought their personal chef from Chicago, Sam Kass, who is all about healthy local food and families.

Putting a school garden project like this together with White House backing would hardly take any time at all, maybe a few phone calls. Most schools would jump at the chance. So I say this to the Obamas: you can have your garden and eat it too. Do it for the kids. Do it for the schools. Every school board in the country will sit up and take notice.


Diana Dyer said...

No comments yet? I can't believe I'm the first to chime in! Yes, this big idea, gardens at every school, is brilliant. However, teachers can't be in charge of this. My son who teaches 8th grade science would support this idea in a nano-second but has precious little time to be the point person for all the thousand details to get a garden up and running full tilt on top of his demanding teaching schedule. However, it would not take that much funding to pay a gardener for each school who could coordinate the planning, the planting, the harvesting, getting the kids involved at every step including the eating i.e. from dirt to fork, the volunteers (use parents, neighbors, college students studying nutrition and/or sustainable agriculture), etc, etc. Even the coordinator position as could be filled by a "FarmCorps" program. I'm just brainstorming here in public space without thinking through the myriad of details that the cynics will surely bring up, "but, but, but......." Our nation has to get moving now on improving the health of our children, our communities, and our planet. I like President Obama's call to action - "This is no time for small plans."

Ed Bruske said...

Diana, you are absolute right: teachers are much too busy to take on the added duties of building and tending a garden on their lonesome. Although I have seen pairs of science teachers pull this office. It takes a village. Better would be a sustainability coordinator attached to the schools working with teachers, parents and volunteers. I believe the Edible Schoolyard Alice Waters started in Oakland has a full-time manager, but it's a very big garden. The garden needs to become part of the curriculum and there need to be protocols and an organizational structure for maintaining it.

susan harris said...

great post - your ideas for supporting school gardens are excellent and I couldn't agree more!
BUT, (as you know because you read it) I suggested not a "cast of characters" but one part-time garden-tender and one (free, volunteer) veg-garden adviser.

And the notion that the First Family shouldn't eat any better food than anyone else? When they could be leading the nation by example? Weird.

You know, they pay for their own food - like all of us - and could easily pay their part-time veg-garden tender out of the president's income - much like any upper-middle-class or richer, busy American couple could do, as well. And Americans who can't afford to hire a gardener could also be inspired by the example at the White House, which would demonstrate how little time it takes to tend a small, family-size garden.

Lots of potential for teaching here.

Ed Bruske said...

Susan, a bit of artistic license, but certainly not meant as a dig. Hopefully people will follow the link to your original piece. I think it's a mistake for the Obamas to draw all this attention to themselves and invite the world to pick over what they are or are not eating. Better to work in the other direction--reaching out and showing how communities can change things for the better by working together. (Obama did start out as a "community organizer," no?) If the emphasis is on children--and rightly so--then I say take school gardens to the next level and make them a priority from the very top down.

Anonymous said...

It's good to be stirring the pot, provoking conversation, but the post seems to reveal a bit of the contrarian. One day, community gardens as is are not the right model, now the idea of growing food at the White House is not the right idea. I'd suggest more is the goal. More community greening of whatever models people invent -- growing your own on your own land, growing your own in your own plot at a community garden, participating in a collective community garden, school gardens, edible public gardens, edibles at the White House (on the roof, in the landscape, as a garden, as a farm, ...). And certainly working to improve Govt food policy, both the growing and the food assistance programs. The more that is done, the more these ideas will be come common parlance and general expectations will change. Let's see the White House incorporate edibles into its landscape and continue its rooftop garden. Let's see Vilsack, the Obamas, and all relevant fed agencies adopt school gardens. Let's see fed agencies add edibles to their landscaping, etc. etc. etc.
Judy Tiger

Ed Bruske said...

Judy, not so much a contrarian as concerned that a flashy White House garden is used as a substitute for reforming federal policy toward food and agriculture. If the Obamas really believe that locally grown food is better, they should make that the law for everyone, then plant their garden. And do you really think they're going to be happy with People magazine breathing down their neck at the dinner table? There's a good reason why the first families have kept their eating habits relatively private.

GlacierGirl75 said...

I think both things have to happen - communities bringing more agriculture/gardens into schools and homes *and* having leaders set positive examples via how they live. I would love to see the Obamas have a kitchen garden that they use to supplement food obtained via normal streams. The British Ambassador has a kitchen garden that is used for just this purpose. Practical and tasty.

Ed Bruske said...

GG, did the Obamas have a kitchen garden in Chicago?

Ecolocity said...

There should not only be school gardens but a full-time gardener and a sustainability coordinator (that's 2 new jobs) whose responsibility it is to not only green the school, but to integrate gardening as a foundation of the curriculum. By this means subjects would be taught in a participatory, experiential way that will relate directly to kids understanding of the world they inhabit.
History: tomatoes, beans and corn from the Americas, the role of the Peruvian potato in the Irish famine
Math: calculations, projections, weights and measures, plotting
Geography: origin of plants, geologic and climate conditions
Chemistry: Acidic and alkaline foods, toxins, photosynthesis
Biology: life cycle, reproduction, propagation, heredity, crossing
Art: plant-based materials, rocks and minerals, botanical illustration
Nutrition: nutrients, food preservation and preparation