Your Guide to Reading Between the Tines

It Actually Happened: The White House Gets a Makeover

Whether or not he made the call for action first, Michael Pollan certainly made it the most publicly.  In his open letter to the incoming president, written a month before the elections, he proposed the seemingly radical idea that the First Family consider “tear[ing] out five prime south-facing acres of the White House lawn and plant[ing] in their place an organic fruit and vegetable garden.”

Well, this week they done did it.

Not five acres worth, but the South Lawn has indeed become home to a garden.

Image from the White House blog at

Garden plan, also from

Less well known is that the White House actually had a garden before Pollan wrote his letter—a rooftop garden on the third story (the private residence), which was regularly used during the Clinton and W. Bush administrations.  Obama Foodorama has a great series of interviews with former White House Executive Chef Walter Scheib which provide more information, for those gardeners, foodies, and miscellaneous rubberneckers out there starving for more information.  Here’s an excerpt:

“You know, there was a little dressed up scarecrow,” Mr. Scheib said. “We grew plenty of things that we used in the kitchen. Peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes and squashes…they’d be started at the Park Service greenhouses, and brought over to the White House. We had fresh products from April to October, which we could physically harvest ourselves. You’d walk up half a flight of stairs and grab whatever you needed.”

And was the garden organic?

“Not certified organic,” Mr. Scheib said. “But everything was absolutely grown without pesticides and fertilizers. I guess it’s what these days we call ‘natural.’ The term ‘garden’ is subjective…to call our rooftop growing a full-on kitchen garden is perhaps a little romantic. It was all containers and tubs, but it was an important part of the food preparation.”

What was Pollan hoping to effect when he made his original proposal?  The buzzword of the Obama campaign, naturally: Change.  Capital C.  Specifically, according to his open letter, “Farmer in Chief,” he was looking for the new president to model “stewardship of the land…self-reliance…making the most of local sunlight to feed one’s family and community.”  Of course, as he pointed out, “the fact that surplus produce from the South Lawn Victory Garden…will be offered to regional food banks will make its own eloquent statement.”

So here we are.  The Obamas, with Michelle Obama largely leading the charge in the public eye (thanks to the traditional First Lady duties of presiding over landscape and menus), are on their way to bringing the importance of fresh, healthy food to the forefront of national consciousness.  They are unquestionably setting a good model for Americans with nice, big lawns, and I am so glad that their garden bounty is heading to Miriam’s Kitchen, a social services organization that feeds those in need of a meal.  Call me crazy, but I think everyone deserves access to good-quality food, regardless of income.

Which, of course, begs some interesting questions.

I am all for small gardens popping up around the country.  However, we need to consider food solutions that benefit those who don’t live in suburban or rural areas.  What can we do to ensure that financially strapped individuals living in, say, urban food wildernesses have convenient access to real vegetables and fruits that haven’t been drowned in chemicals?  For those who have no lawns, for those dependent on public transport, for those who live five minutes from a 7/11 and a half an hour from a real grocery store, for those with limited resources of time and money…what options will we as a nation work to ensure them?

Good food and good health should not be luxuries.  Rooftop gardens, community gardens, year-round farmers’ markets that accept WIC and food stamps, community co-ops and buying clubs are good places to start, but talk to me, readers.  What are some of the programs you would most like to see implemented?  What have you seen work in your communities?  What would you name as the most valuable vehicles for changing the way we Americans eat, for changing our short and long term health as individuals and as a nation?


8 Comments so far

  1. Aaron March 22nd, 2009 3:10 pm

    This is truly great. When I teach agriculture and farming to my Environmental Science students, I make them look up the letter “Farmer in Chef” online and read it.

    It is truly a new day in this country for food.

  2. Michelle @ What Does Your Body Good? March 22nd, 2009 5:52 pm

    I know, isn’t that awesome! BTW, sorry I’ve gone missing, I switched rss readers and your feed got lost there for awhile :-)

  3. Sizz March 23rd, 2009 12:04 am

    How about a local municipal subsidy program–a certain portion of tax dollars are paid out to growers at local farmers markets to offset prices laid out to the consumer. Tax dollars at work=paid growers=lower produce prices at the markets=more accessible food for everyone.

  4. Kimberley March 24th, 2009 11:09 am

    I absolutely agree that getting affordable organic and healthy food (and education about nutrition) out to those who can least afford it is hugely important.

    It is my understanding that the garden at the White House is not just supplying the White House Kitchen. It is also going to supply one of the largest soup kitchens in the D.C Area ( Miriam’s Kitchen). I think that is a step in the right direction – people using soup kitchens are often unable to afford “regular” grocery store food, much less organic fresh grown. Hopefully there will be more awareness, and perhaps more action will come from this.

  5. Laurel March 24th, 2009 4:36 pm

    It’s a good idea. Actually, I was thinking it would be nice for health insurance companies to offer their insured discounts at farmers’ markets, co-ops, and (most easily managed, probably) CSA memberships the way some already offer discounts on gym memberships. This doesn’t solve the problem, as anyone without health insurance is left high and dry (including yours truly), but it could be a piece of the puzzle. My idea isn’t novel: MACSAC (Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition) does that, partnering with some health care providers to facilitate annual rebates to their insured who have CSA memberships at a variety of farms. MACSAC (which is giving me a serious case of warm fuzzies right now) also offers the Partner Shares Program, which subsidizes CSA memberships for low-income households, thus helping those without health insurance.

    Absolutely. I mentioned Miriam’s Kitchen in my post, and I think it’s an excellent decision. I think something like this could be done with community gardening projects as well. You’d be surprised what’s out there when you look. For example, down the street from us in the urban jungle, a single elderly man farms vegetables on a vacant lot the owner lets him use free of charge. The owner even covers the water bills. There, that elderly man grows vegetables and donates them all to local soup kitchens.

  6. [...] away from big box shopping and toward farmers’ market shopping or CSAs, please take a look at the comments from my last post.  Depending on your community, you may have options of which you’re not yet aware.  Or you [...]

  7. Kimmus April 7th, 2009 11:54 am

    I love these ideas…this is truly inspiring. I love our new president too. Gee, I feel happy right now :)

  8. [...] guess it follows that if the First Lady plants an organic garden, the country might just go all Joni Mitchell (”Big Yellow Taxi”) on [...]

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