White House Victory Garden: Symbolic or Stupid?

8 years ago

In his inaugural speech this week, President Obama spoke of the notion of responsibility, public service, and personal sacrifice, three things that Americans (my generation in particular) love to hear.  I’m pretty sure he wasn’t talking to me, but it got me thinking about the rest of you and what you all might have planned in terms of lifestyle changes that will benefit the country as a whole.  And that brought me, eventually, to victory gardens.

Thousands of Americans voted in the Ideas for Change and On Day One brainstorming competitions to give some weight to the idea of planting a victory garden on the White House lawn.  That the Obamas should “lead by example on climate change, health policy, economic self-reliance, food security, and energy independence by replanting an organic food garden at the White House with the produce going to the First Kitchen and to local food pantries.

It’s not exactly a new idea.  Early presidents planted their own gardens as a matter of practicality. “War gardens” were encouraged during World War I to combat potential food shortages, and then “victory gardens” sprouted up during the Second World War in response to food rationing and to conserve fuel for the war effort.  In 1943, Eleanor Roosevelt planted a victory garden on the White House lawn in defiance of the USDA, which deemed the symbolic act, and I quote, “really, really, really stooopid.”  

As Emily of Eat Close to Home writes:

“The official line was that no amateur gardener could harvest enough food to make it worth the expenditure of seeds and chemical fertilizer, which was now preferred over manure…and in fact [the USDA] said that home gardening was unpatriotic.”

Nevertheless, it caught on.  By some accounts, 20 million home gardens were planted during World War II, producing 40 percent of America’s vegetables.  That's a lot!

In today’s climate of uncertainty, the arguments for a revival of this tradition are many.  Through the process of growing your own food, you reap the benefits of better health through tastier, more nutrient-packed fruits and vegetables, a more physically fit body, and, quite possibly, improved psychological well-being, something that money can’t buy.  Assuming you don’t live on a toxic waste dump, your food will potentially be safer.  It can be economical.  And, when you grow it yourself, you gain an appreciation for what the true value of food really is.  

The arguments against victory gardens run the gamut from "I don't have time" to “I don’t know how” to “Why bother?”  Other excuses I’ve heard: "My yard is too shady", "I live on a steep rock ledge", "I have a voracious and brazen woodchuck."  True, it might not be for everyone.  I tried my hand at a victory garden the year before last and let’s just say that I was not victorious.  If the future of this country was to be in some way correlated to the state of my garden, then we have some dark days ahead, indeed.  Still, it was fun.

But there is a valid argument against a White House victory garden, which is that there are larger issues at stake within our government.  Planting some symbolic Swiss chard won’t change the fact that the President may have already missed the boat on real food policy change by appointing Tom Vilsack as Secretary of Agriculture.  Someone who the Organic Consumers Association called “a shill for Monsanto and corporate agribusiness.”  Maybe too pretty a garden would draw attention away from the fact that very little is actually changing within the combines of agricultural legislation.  Maybe what we really need is to see no garden on the chemically green, landscaped grounds of the White House.  Or, maybe in order to get anything to grow, you first have to plant a seed.

So, enough of the cons, let’s get back to the pros.  Sharon Astyk of Casaubon’s Book believes that planting a garden is a radical act:

“We cannot simultaneously deplore the power corporations have in our society and depend on them to supply our most basic necessities. If we stop giving our hard earned money to the corporations who undermine our democracy, they will be less powerful!”

Okay, but I still want my Internet access.

Dana Shields posting at Intent says victory gardens will serve as a concrete example of the values the President claims to espouse:

“If we're going to recalibrate like President Obama has suggested, we need some concrete examples. Obamas would do well to begin emphasizing health care rather than healthcare, to push tomatoes over entitlements, to minister rather than administer, to dig rather than dictate, sow rather than mow.”

Although some of us may have an uncomfortable visceral reaction to seeing our shiny new black President toiling in the fields, I don’t think anyone is suggesting that Obama do the bulk of the farming.  He could hire a special White House Farmer for that, as Michael Pollan has suggested.  Then, Obama could come out every now and then for a bit of fresh air, exercise, and the requisite photo ops.  It might go a long way toward providing a national model for diet and exercise.

Victory gardens may not be a new concept, but recycling old good ideas—ones that work and have very little downside—are in the right spirit.  Especially if we update this vintage idea with live blogging.  And webcams.  I know I’d tune in.


Are you planting a victory garden this spring?  Anything delicious?

Tammy Donroe can also be found documenting the messy collision between food and life on her blog, Food on the Food.

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