(Beyond Pesticides, March 23, 2009) With the beginning of Spring, students from Washington, D.C.’s Bancroft Elementary School have joined First Lady Michelle Obama on the White House’s South Lawn to start an 1,100-square foot kitchen garden that will provide food for family meals, formal dinners and local D.C. soup kitchens. Over the coming months, the students, whose school has had a garden since 2001, along with the Obama family and the White House grounds crew, will help with the organic garden from planting to harvesting. Many hope that this move is more than symbolic, that it will transcend to better agricultural and pesticide-reform policies, invigorate homeowners to convert some of their own lawns to an organic garden, and educate the consumers on the importance of eating healthy locally-grown organic food.
The garden will contain 55 different vegetables, as well as berries, herbs and two beehives. According to the New York Times, the White House has spent $200 for organic seeds, mulch and dirt for the raised garden plot beds that will be “fertilized with White House compost, crab meal from the Chesapeake Bay, lime and green sand. Ladybugs and praying mantises will help control harmful bugs.”
“I’m thrilled for the Obama family and for all who will be inspired by their example to grow gardens of their own this year,” said Roger Doiron, founder of the nonprofit Kitchen Gardeners International who ran the campaign, Eat the View, which coordinated a 100,000 signature-petition asking the Obamas to replant a Victory Garden at the White House.
While the Obamas’ garden might be new, the idea of an edible landscape at the White House is not. Throughout its history, the White House has been home to food gardens of different shapes and sizes and even to a lawn-mowing herd of sheep in 1918. The appeal of the White House garden project, Mr. Doiron asserts, is that it serves as a bridge between the country’s past and its future. “The last time food was grown on the White House lawn was in 1943, when the country was at war, the economy was struggling and people were looking to the First Family for leadership. It made sense before and it makes sense again as we try to live within our own means and those of the planet.”
Over the course of the past month, the Eat the View campaign has touted the economic benefits of home gardens as part of its pitch to White House staff members. As proof, Mr. Doiron and his wife spent nine months weighing and recording each vegetable they pulled from their 1,600-square-foot garden outside Portland, Maine. After counting the final winter leaves of salad, they found that they had saved about $2,150 by growing produce for their family of five instead of buying it.
Mr. Dioron isn’t the only one that has been spearheading the push for a White House organic garden. Alice Waters, chef of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, has been advocating for such a garden since the 1990’s and continues to campaign for her Edible Schoolyard and School Lunch Initiative. Daniel Bowman Simon and Casey Gustowarow started The White House Organic Farm Project, also a petition-based initiative that uses two school buses fused together with an organic edible garden on the roof to travel around the country in an effort to educate others.
Organic agriculture embodies an ecological approach to farming that does not rely on or permit toxic, synthetic pesticides, chemical fertilizers, genetically modified organisms, antibiotics, sewage sludge, or irradiation. Instead of using these harmful products and practices, organic agriculture utilizes techniques such as cover cropping, crop rotation, and composting to produce healthy soil, prevent pest and disease problems, and grow healthy food and fiber.
Former White House executive chef Walter Scheib told the Washington Post, “This garden is a tremendous idea, one that is both timely and in some ways overdue. There has always been a small garden at the White House, but this commitment by Mrs. Obama to local and freshly grown produce is a progressive move forward that will raise the profile and awareness of local and sustainable food both at the White House and nationally to an unprecedented level.”
Groups around the country are happy to see the new, organic direction the White House is taking, but hopes that President Obama takes it further. Kitchen Gardeners International plans to expand the Eat the View campaign to other high-profile pieces of land, such as sprawling lawns around governors’ residences, schoolyards, and vacant urban lots.
Beyond Pesticides would like to see all federal lands managed organically and federal buildings using defined Integrated Pest Management. Beyond Pesticides supports organic agriculture as effecting good land stewardship and a reduction in hazardous chemical exposures for workers on the farm. The pesticide reform movement, citing pesticide problems associated with chemical agriculture, from groundwater contamination and runoff to drift, views organic as the solution to a serious public health and environmental threat.
Encourage the Obama Administration to promote organic agriculture, which slows global climate change and support rural economic development. Read the recommendations sent to Mr. Obama’s transition team by grassroots organizations. Contact the Obama administration.