Backlash Begins on White House Garden
By Lee West
Since Michelle Obama joined twenty-three fifth graders in digging up the South Lawn of the White House last Friday to make way for an organic vegetable garden, the public and media reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. (Read an open letter by Melina Shannon-DiPietro, Director of the Yale Sustainable Food Project, responding to the creation of the White House garden here)
But Slate, ever the skeptic among online magazines, had to find something wrong. What they came up with was this, a statement from Alice Waters describing the potential positive impact of the White House garden: “To have this sort of ‘victory’ garden, this message goes out that everyone can grow a garden and have free food.”
The article goes to great lengths to point out that the White House garden will not, in fact, produce food that is literally free. That’s true, but it’s not a “gotcha” insight – anything takes money to get started. The startup costs for this garden will actually be rather modest: $200 for seeds, mulch, and the like, according to Sam Kass, an assistant White House chef.
That’s cheap enough for the White House garden to be a real model, not just symbolic inspiration, for other kitchen and urban gardens in America.
The Slate article also laments that gardening is hard work and can be frustrating. Again, this is true, but it’s nothing new. Spending a little time to grow your own food, according to Slate, “takes over your dreams, and frequently breaks your heart.” I’ve checked with our YSFP Blog correspondents, and while visions of healthy, organic produce we’ve grown with our own hands may come to us nightly, we’ve yet to be heartbroken by our vegetables.
“So why garden?” the article continues. “Because gardening is one of the joys of life.” Maybe, but also because gardens produce food, which you can then eat. Especially in a tough economy, a kitchen garden gives a household access to quality food that might not be affordable anywhere else.
It’s no small potatoes, either. According to Kass, the White House garden should yield “quite a bit,” but for concrete numbers the best example we have remains the American Victory Gardens, started during World War II in households across the country. Following the lead of another prominent First Lady, Americans by the end of the war had started more than 20 million backyard vegetable gardens that grew 40% of the nation’s vegetables.
The same sort of grassroots change could take hold of our food system today, and in fact, it has already begun to do so. The Economist, hardly the vanguard of any revolution, reported last month on something called the Backyard Garden Project in Arkansas, which “helps inner-city families start gardens for self-sufficiency.” In refreshing contrast to Slate’s contrarian take, that article described the work of the Backyard Garden Project as “perhaps the most positive aspect of the garden movement.”
One last point. The Slate article ends with an assertion that “this admirable, enviable vegetable garden doesn’t point the way to a future of free, or even affordable, organic produce for all.” Of course not – no one is saying that backyard gardens alone will solve the food crisis facing America today. But they can be part of the solution, a first incremental step away from the domination of industrial agriculture toward more regional, organic, and sustainable food-supply systems. No single change we make will magically transform the way we get our food (and such a search for one “best” way to produce food is exactly the kind of thinking that helped spawn the agro-industrial complex in the first place). But small kitchen gardens like that growing on the White House lawn can be, and will be, a healthy and affordable change in the way we Americans get our food.