The White House Garden: championing home growing in the United States

20 Oct 2013 05.33 am by Renny Wijeyamohan

The grounds of the White House are no stranger to home growing. The Adamses (president #2), the Jeffersons (#3), the Jacksons (#7) and the Roosevelts (#32) all planted home gardens. In 1835, President Andrew Jackson set up an “orangery” to grow and taste delicious tropical fruit, while in sterner times President Franklin Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt planted a 1943 “Victory Garden” to encourage austerity and self sufficiency during World War II. But it’s been the Obama food garden – based on principles of sustainability, nutrition and organic production – that has captured the nation’s imagination (and ire).


Planted by the Obamas and fifth-graders from Bancroft Elementary in 2009 – the idea behind the garden was conceived during a visit by Michelle Obama and her two daughters to their paediatrician, who expressed concerns about Malia’s and Sasha’s health due to their busy White House schedule supplemented with fast-food and take-out. “He was a doctor working primarily in the inner city," says Obama to NRP’s Renee Morgan, “He shared with me what he was seeing in his practice: the increase of Type 2 diabetes among his young patients; higher incidence of obesity”.


The garden has been on foot for nearly 4 years now and in May 2012, Michelle Obama launched American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens across America.


The book tells an interesting story. It’s less a book about gardening and more an inspiration for a movement. In fact, this is pointedly not the first time that the First Lady has used her profile to promote health and nutrition. In establishing Let’s Move an anti-obesity campaign aimed at children in 2010 and she is seen as a key driver behind her husband’s Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act. As Treehugger’s Ramon Gonzales comments: “It wasn't until my 6-year-old nephew, who is a big fan of President Obama and the First Lady, excitedly picked up the book and leafed through it that I understood why American Grown was published”. 


The Obamas have drawn criticism for the garden from a number of quarters. Big agriculture isn’t happy with the pro-organic (and implicit anti-big farm) message of the garden. Political opponents have suggested the garden was a political coup designed to distract the public from President Obama’s sliding voter popularity. While the book itself has drawn criticism from gardeners for failing to provide meaningful gardening history, tips or advice.


In the end though – Michelle Obama’s message is a simple one. “You can begin in your own cupboard,” says Obama in the New York Times, “by eliminating processed food, trying to cook a meal a little more often, trying to incorporate more fruits and vegetables.”




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