City Farmer Adventures in Urban Food Growing
By Johnson, Lorraine
Greystone Books Copyright © 2011 Johnson, Lorraine
All right reserved. ISBN: 9781553655190
From Chapter 2: Embracing a Food-Growing Ethic
On the first day of spring, in 2009, a busy mom took time out of her highly scheduled work day to do something very unusual. She prepared the soil for a vegetable garden in the front lawn of her house. Spinach, chard, collard greens and black kale seedlings would go into the ground where only grass had flourished. A small space of edibility was thus carved out of an ornamental landscape. And not just any ornamental landscape: this was the front yard of a nation, the White House lawn in Washington, D.C., and the mom holding the hoe was Michelle Obama.
Was it something in the water? Or maybe in the air? In the spring and summer of 2009, politicians of all stripes and at every level, in the U.S. and Canada, were planting food gardens at the symbolic seats of power in front of City Halls, governors’ mansions, legislatures and yes, even on the lawn of the White House.
Michelle Obama had plenty of help. The National Park Service had tested the soil (and found lead levels of 93 parts per million, within the safe range) and prepared the bed. Twenty-six Grade 5 schoolchildren from the nearby Bancroft Elementary School assisted with the planting. An army of media recorded every move and dissected every nuance, right down to the First Lady’s choice of footwear: Jimmy Choo boots. While the folksiness of the scene may have been diminished somewhat by the luxury attire adorning her feet, the popular verdict on the event was that this was a class act by a down-to-earth woman in touch with the people. In a few brief hours, Obama achieved what food activists and nutrition advocates could only dream of: she made the planting of a vegetable garden front-page news around the world. It was a good news day indeed for urban agriculture.
Appropriate for a place on which the spotlight of symbolism shines so brightly, the White House front yard has been the focus of many food-related campaigns over the years, some started by individuals or groups with a message to promote, others initiated by the inhabitants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue themselves. Surely the spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt was hovering over the White House lawn to cheer Obama on. It was Roosevelt who had last channelled her energies in the direction of food production, planting a Victory Garden at the White House during World War II. Interestingly, Roosevelt’s efforts, while embraced by the people, were somewhat less than enthusiastically supported by officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who were concerned about the effects that a populace committed to growing their own food in backyards across the nation would have on the agricultural sector and the food industry. How times have changed. When Obama planted her garden, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had just recently announced that an organic food garden, "The People’s Garden,” would be planted at USDA headquarters, across from the Smithsonian Mall, in honour of President Lincoln. In the photo op accompanying the announcement, Vilsack chipped away at the pavement, a reversal of fortune for this parking lot, which was unpaved back to some semblance of paradise. As he put it to the assembled media: "Our goal is for USDA facilities worldwide to install community gardens in their local offices.”
Other presidential precedents can be found for Obama’s agricultural act. The first presidential inhabitant of the White House, John Adams, planted vegetables there. Thomas Jefferson planted fruit trees. President William Taft is said to have kept a cow at the White House from 1910 to 1913 a Holstein-Frisian gifted by a senator from Wisconsin. During Woodrow Wilson’s tenure, sheep grazed the lawn. In the late 1970s, Jimmy Carter tended an herb garden.
The symbolic power that food production can carry at this most symbolic of households had been noted and promoted by many people and organizations before Obama picked up her trowel. In a slyly subversive gesture, Euell Gibbons, the father of modern food foraging whose classic 1962 book, Stalking the Wild Asparagus, is still in print, stuck his hand through the White House fence and plucked four edible "weeds” from the lawn. Clearly the standards of care have become more stringent since then, and the small army of groundskeepers who maintain the place wouldn’t let any weeds edible or not get past them.
It was precisely this small army that writer Michael Pollan, the author of many bestselling books, including The Omnivore’s Dilemma, suggested in 1991 be enlisted for a different kind of effort. His New York Times opinion piece "Abolish the White House Lawn” proposed that President Bush issue an executive order to rip out the grass "an act of environmental shock therapy” that, Pollan imagined, "could conceivably set off a revolution in consciousness.” Just where that revolution could lead included four different possible destinations usefully provided by Pollan. One option was to replace the lawn with a meadow, the mown path of which could form a spur of the Appalachian Trail. Another was to restore a portion of the White House landscape to its original condition as wetland. (Pollan acknowledged that the swamp symbolism might be troubling to some.) A third proposal was to plant a vegetable garden an 18-acre victory garden. "The White House has enough land to become self-sufficient in food a model of Jeffersonian independence and thrift!” Pollan noted. The fourth suggestion, preferred by Pollan, was to plant an orchard with that most American of fruits the apple. (Pollan remained silent on the subject of apple pie.)
President Bush didn’t accept Pollan’s challenge, and it took almost two decades for the White House turfgrass to be turfed 102 square metres of it anyway. We can only speculate about what role Roger Doiron played in the Obamas’ decision to install a White House food garden, but there’s no doubt that his persuasive efforts captured the public’s imagination. Doiron is the person behind the Maine-based network Kitchen Gardeners International’s Eat the View campaign. Promoting "high-impact food gardens in high-profile places,” his campaign was launched in February 2008 to encourage the planting of a White House Victory Garden (for the "Eaters in Chief”). More than 110,000 people signed the petition. Without a doubt, the garden has been an inspiration to hundreds of thousands more an example of a leader pointing people in the direction of positive, personal solutions in tough times but it’s also a rousing example of the people leading the chief.
Cynics might suggest that the White House garden is all optics without much traction, despite the flurry of interest that accompanied its planting. But the follow-through has been impressive. Michelle Obama, who said at the September 2009 opening of a Washington, D.C., farmers’ market that the White House food garden was "one of the greatest things I’ve done in my life so far,” has put food issues in the spotlight. Continues...
Excerpted from City Farmer by Johnson, Lorraine Copyright © 2011 by Johnson, Lorraine. Excerpted by permission.
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