A Digression: the Obama Garden and US Food Politics

It took me a while to put this post together; I started it on Sunday and discussed it with my mom on the phone. Then it languished on my desktop for a few days, as I tried to better articulate my views. It’s not that I dislike the Obama Garden, it’s just that…it’s a garden. Take this post as an indication that I am becoming increasingly moderate (and perhaps, increasingly crotchety) in my old age.  And feel free to argue that the Obama garden does offer something more than a photo-worthy news opportunity.

The US foodie/sustainable agriculture world has been abuzz this week with news of Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden. If you’ve been under a rock (and/or are not on the COMFOOD list serv), the White House announced last Thursday that an organic garden will be created on the South Lawn. This is being proclaimed as a major triumph within the sustainable ag world, a culmination of several disparate efforts to get a White House Garden within the first 100 days of the Obama presidency. In announcing the garden groundbreaking, Mrs. Obama emphasized educating children about healthy eating through fresh and locally grown vegetables. There’s also a subtext of what it means for the PRESIDENT to be supporting local and organic agriculture over oil-laden industrial foods shipped across the country and around the world.

I am of two minds on this subject. On the one hand, it’s a nice gesture. On the other, it’s, well, a gesture. If Obama, Congress, and the nation are committed to agricultural and nutritional reform, it is not a matter of a garden, or a thousand gardens: it is an issue of policy reform.

The most hopeful among the food revolutionaries suggest that this garden is a signal of lasting change, of a real commitment on behalf of the Obama administration to change food policy and consumption habits. I fully support the idea of the garden, of having at least a few more people know where their food comes from, and having some symbolic support for local food on the White House lawn. I do not, however, see it as a great harbinger of change.

This garden does nothing to combat the “elitist” image that the foodie movement tends to cultivate. Instead of sending a message about better, healthier food for EVERYONE, this is a garden for the President. And, contrary to Alice Waters’ recent comments, gardening is neither free nor possible for everyone. If Michelle Obama can maintain a garden only with the help of myriad staff members and a passel of fifth graders from a nearby school, what message does this send to the single mother who works two jobs? While I was lucky to grow up with a huge gardenful of fresh food, taking care of a garden large enough to provide a significant portion of one’s diet is at LEAST a part time job, requiring capital and land resources to which the majority of Americans do not have access. If anything, a White House garden – on a corner of a vast lawn, cared for by full-time gardeners – merely reinforces the United States’ dual agricultural economy: fresh fruits and vegetables from small farms for those who can afford it, processed commodities for the rest.

In short, this is not policy change – it’s a garden. I’m reasonably certain that the best way to promote healthy eating habits and dietary change in the US is not through a plot by Sasha and Malia’s swingset. While I enjoy the sustainable agriculture and foodie movements, market demand, growing though it may be, is not enough transform the landscape or the American plate. Fortunately, the Washington Post recently carried an article about Iowan Dave Murphy, who sums up my views with greater precision than I can muster: “If you want to change the ballgame, you have to address the policies that are responsible for the system we have in place,” Murphy said. “If you change policy, the market will change.”

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2 Responses to “A Digression: the Obama Garden and US Food Politics”

  1. Rachel Says:

    I love this Amy! I’ve always pondered the same thing with many other topics related to Obama these days. People have put so much emphasis on Obama as some sort of savior that they relish every single thing that he does (and oops! I just took a very unpopular side!). A garden on the lawn isn’t really enacting any sort of change in our country. It may be symbolic of change but I don’t see that change happening throughout the country…yet.

  2. LoveLetterstoMiddleEast Says:

    *Applause, applause*

    Wonderful post!

    And can I just please say- oh Alice Waters!! Media coverage and being over-enthusiastic is not the solution to making your happy ideas a reality. And it certainly doesn’t pay the bill for sustainability and food for “everyone!”

    Reality check! Nicely said Amy.

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