Friday, March 20, 2009

White House to Veg Garden with School Kids

The garden and food blogs are all atwitter with news that Michelle Obama will be installing a food garden at the White House.

Apparently I was outnumbered in my argument against the garden on grounds that President Obama should think about food policy for the whole nation before he started feeding the First Family produce from the back yard. I also thought there was something politically awkward about the Obamas having a staff to feed them garden-fresh produce in a time of financial crisis, or in the absence of a federal program to help everyone install a garden. Too much symbolism, not enough substance for my taste. (A cohort in the food intelligensia agreed with me, but not very publicly.)

What I suggested was that instead of directing the gardening efforts at themselves, the Obamas should think of adopting a school garden. Kids--especially in an urban environment--need the experience of growing their own food so much more, and it would be a huge boost to the idea of school gardens as well connecting schools to local food. As I said then, there were any number of schools within walking distance of the White House that the Obamas could team up with. To my mind, that was the perfect way for the Obamas to have their garden and eat it too.

Could it be that the White House was listening? The New York Times quotes Michelle Obama as saying that the garden's "most important role will be will be to educate children about healthful, locally grown fruit and vegetables at a time when obesity has become a national concern." To that end, the White House is enlisting a squadron of fifth-grader from Bancroft Elementary School--located just blocks from our house in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood of the District of Columbia--to come to the White House and dig up an 1,100-square-foot area of lawn and install a vegetable garden there. Thenceforth, the kids will be involved in planting seeds as well as harvesting and cooking the garden's bounty, all under the supervision of the Obama's personal chef Sam Kass.

The Obamas, meanwhile, will help pull weeds "whether they like it or not," Michelle Obama said.

This has to be considered the ultimate reward for Mt. Pleasant resident Iris Rothman, who for years has been the moving force behind the gardening efforts at Bancroft Elementary. Thanks to Rothman, a large swath of asphalt at the school was removed some years ago and replaced with a huge rain garden. The school also boasts numerous raised beds for vegetables and more than two dozen trees planted, thanks to Rothman's tireless efforts.

Will Iris be involved in the White House project? Will she get a big hug from Michelle Obama in recognition of all her local gardening efforts? We certainly hope so. Congratulations, Iris.

Before we get carried away, however, I would just warn the Obamas that while we appreciate this clever solution to the White House garden question, we are still looking for the food policy piece. Or what if the First Lady were to take on the school lunch issue?

Now there's something she could really sink her teeth into....

5 comments:

Julia said...

Great news about the White House Garden! But yes, we do need improved food policies. But this will help change the focus of the conversation.

Diane said...

One problem with school gardens in the northeast (probably including DC) is that most of crops are ready during the summer which is school break. The kids get to do the work but miss the harvest. I hope they think of planting very early and late crops to get around this issue.

Colleen/FoodieTots said...

I agreed, and was glad to see Alice Waters redirect her attention back to school lunch. I suggested to the Smithsonian that they plant a community garden in lieu of replanting the grass on a portion of the Mall, but of course that's not really conducive to the crowds of tourists that traipse through. At any rate, I am also glad that local school kids will be involved with the White House garden!

John said...

If only a few people who admire President Obama are impressed by the example set by the installation of a kitchen garden at the White House and they emulate this by planting their own gardens, then it will be well worth it beyond the fact that the Obamas will benefit physically and spiritually by the fresh produce and herbs.

Ed Bruske said...

Julia, if this changes the subject to food gardening, then we need to have a serious subject about actual policies that can encourage food gardening, especially turning urban lands into food producing acreage and building school gardens to teach kids about food and cooking. I'm assuming that the suburbanites with big back yards can take care of themselves.

Diane, I think the seasonal aspect can be a speed bump for school gardens but it's not insurmountable. Who says the kids can't come back to the school garden to garden as long as there's an adult supervising? This is where a partnership between schools and gardener volunteers comes in. If you have a couple people in the neighborhood who are involved with the program and have access to the garden, there's no reason the kids can't continue straight through the summer on an extra-curricular basis. Also, there's no reason kids can't be plant hearty greens in the fall and harvest them all winter into the spring.

Colleen, there is so much open space in the federal enclave that could be turned into gardens. Just put up some fencing around them.

John, I don't really buy the "if it only changes one life" thing and I think it's important that the focus of this garden be somewhere other than directly on the Obamas. I'm sure that entered into their calculations as well.