Two sets of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCV) had made public campaigns calling on Barack Obama to rip out part of the expansive White House lawn and plant an organic garden. Dan Simon and Casey Gustowarow championed the WHOFarm (White House Organic Farm) Project, while Amanda Fuller and Justin Mog (RPCV-Paraguay) created their campaign around Obama’s campaign slogan, referring to it as a “Hope Garden.” Michael Pollan, author of several books about sustainable food systems (Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food), advocated for the garden as well as a “symbolically resonant step in building a new American food culture.”
It was not an unprecedented suggestion: Eleanor Roosevelt’s World War II Victory Garden is well known, and started millions of Americans gardening. Less well known is that Woodrow Wilson allowed sheep to graze and fertilize the White House lawn to save resources during WWI and that John Adams had a vegetable garden at the White House in 1800.
Though we’re not in a World War right now, it can be argued that we are fighting for our very survival with economic and environmental perils everywhere we turn. As Obama himself mentioned:
Our agricultural system is built on cheap oil. As a consequence, our agriculture sector actually is contributing more greenhouse gases than our transportation sector. And in the meantime, it’s creating monocultures that are vulnerable to national security threats, are now vulnerable to sky-high food prices… huge swings in commodity prices, and are partly responsible for the explosion in our healthcare costs because they’re contributing to type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease, obesity…
The bottom line is that Obama gets it, and knows that a White House organic garden can be a terrific catalyst for change.
The garden idea is also not unprecedented internationally: Thailand’s Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn has an organic farm at her Thong Noi palace which covers 42 rai (a measure of space equal to 1600 square meters). It is a model of sustainable food production, and the Princess herself gets her hands dirty in the garden as an example to her people and simply because she enjoys gardening.
The Obamas broke ground on their garden on March 20: an 1,100 square foot garden with 55 veggies, as well as berries, herbs, and two beehives. The food will be used to feed the Obamas, and also for state dinners and other official events. Imagine the effect that might have on other statesmen, both domestically and internationally: tasting delicious, fresh food grown right on site, without chemicals. Elementary students from Washington area school Bancroft Elementary will continue to tend to the garden as part of their school curriculum. What an opportunity for those kids! Just think how different your life would have been, had you gardened organically in 3rd grade on the White House Lawn. Or if you had gardened organically at all?!
While the Obamas are hesitant to use the words organic or sustainable, from the likely criticism such “elitism” might elicit from conservative naysayers, they are growing arugula, perhaps a direct response (read: thumbed nose) to John McCain and other Republicans for their campaign criticism of Obama for eating such “elite” vegetables as arugula.
Above and beyond the political fray, this symbolism and leadership from the White House could prove beneficial to the green economy in other ways. While not everyone with organic gardening skills can work on an estate such as the White House as a full-timer, there are many homeowners in the U.S. with space and desire for gardens, and not enough time or know-how to operate them themselves. Setting up and maintaining organic gardens can be a very fun and lucrative business. Two companies in San Francisco have begun doing just that: Freelance Farmers (www.FreelanceFarmers.com), and MyFarm (www.myfarmsf.com). Imagine millions of Americans organically gardening and millions more supporting eco-entrepreneur organic gardeners to do it for them.
How much of an effect can this have on the economy and our agricultural system? Symbolism from our First Residence carries tremendous effect. John F. Kennedy is largely credited with killing the American hat. He refused to wear one (despite pressure from hat manufacturers, according to legend), and within a few years, wearing a hat was viewed as something your Grandfather would do. Can we hope that within a few years, NOT gardening organically in your yard and instead having a chemically intensive lawn of “perfect” green grass will be viewed as something backwards, conservative, and something only grumpy old people might do?
Scott Cooney is the author of Build a Green Small Business: Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill), and looks forward to the day when the green economy is simply referred to as…the economy.