The first day of Spring was last Friday, March 20th. It was also the day that First Lady Michelle Obama and a group of D.C. schoolchildren broke ground on the new (yet returning) White House vegetable garden or, as some have been calling it, 'America's Garden'.
I first heard mention of a garden at the White House in the Alice Waters biography 'Alice Waters And Chez Panisse' by Thomas McNamee. Apparently she and the Clintons were quite chummy -- Bill had eaten at Chez Panisse, Alice's Berkeley restaurant, a few times and was quite impressed. Based on their connection, she began a letter writing campaign trying to get the President to plant a vegetable and fruit garden on the White House lawn. Her efforts came to naught, the Bush administration came to power, and the idea sat fallow until the Obamas arrived.
My first reaction to the idea was that it was elitist and beneath the dignity of the White House, and the President, to have carrots and spinach poking out of the South Lawn. After all, less than 1oo miles away, there is surely local, organic produce that can be delivered to the White House within a few hours. But as I came to understand, the garden is not just food for the First Family; it’s a symbolic gesture, to show the rest of us that we too can be self-sustaining. And this is always a good thing, no matter what the current economic vicissitudes. Alice should be proud, her patience and doggedness finally paid off.
Gardens have a long history at the White House especially in the early days when they were planted to feed its occupants. The last vegetable garden planted at the White House was a Victory Garden that Eleanor Roosevelt planted in 1943 as part of the war effort. She planted it as an example to encourage the nation to plant their own Victory Gardens. The result worked prodigiously: In 1943 there were 20 million Victory Gardens in the country, and the produce they generated accounted for 1/3 of all vegetables eaten that year.
In my travels around the blogosphere I have read about a chef in Washington state who is turning her front yard into a garden in hopes that the neighbors will contribute to and take from it; and a man in Boulder, Colorado who convinced several neighbors that they should all plant gardens in their front yards and share the bounty. Those are two of many stories out there. There seems to be a ‘get-back-to-the-garden’ movement afoot with our new President leading the way.
Final comment: Alice wasn’t alone in persuading the Obamas to plant America’s Garden. Roger Doiron started his own campaign called Eat The View on February 6, 2008. He and his supporters had a big hand in making the First Garden happen. Michael Pollan writer of ‘In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto’ and ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals’ put a call out for a White House Farmer in November 2008 by writing to President-elect Obama in a New York Times article. These are only a few. There are other heroes of the movement out there as well.