But there, the similarity ends. The gardener is Michelle Obama, the home is the White House and the vegetable garden on the South Lawn has become so much more than just another city slicker’s gee-whiz carrot patch.
Four growing seasons after the Obamas carved out the beds in a corner of the greensward, the White House vegetable garden has developed as the symbolic crossroads of a range of contemporary societal issues, some connected, others less so.
Sustainable local agriculture, national farm policy, school gardens and, most of all, childhood nutrition and health have all found common ground in the garden. The book, written with Washington journalist Lyric Winik and others, and published in May by Crown Publishing, is full of photos and descriptions of the seasonal joy and delight of raising fruit and vegetables. But, on another plane, it reads as Michelle Obama’s personal manifesto.
The popular first lady seems so far to have successfully navigated the minefield of Washington politics, although some are grousing that she hasn’t done enough, while others worry that she has done too much. Her promotion of farmers markets and other local food systems is “profoundly mistaken,” said Pierre Desrochers, an associate professor of geography at the University of Toronto-Mississauga who is fed up with the dissing of big agriculture.
Yet others laud the first lady for bringing valuable visibility and traction to childhood nutrition, even if much more has to be done to achieve her goal of “solving the challenge of childhood obesity within a generation.” She has invited children from the District’s Bancroft and Harriet Tubman elementary schools to ceremonial plantings and harvests, organized a farmers market nearby on Vermont Avenue NW, and started an exercise campaign called Let’s Move! In addition to the public relations efforts, she has also been active in government policy and is credited, along with President Obama, with securing passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Currently, she is the nation’s representative at the ultimate keep-fit event, the Olympic Games in London.
Her efforts have “brought incredible energy to the people in the trenches working for a long time,” said Duane Perry, who founded the Food Trust, a Philadelphia nonprofit group established in 1992 to bring better food to the inner city. “There has been a [cultural] shift, which only something like a first lady on a personal level is likely to accomplish. The last time we saw something this significant was when Eleanor Roosevelt used her bully pulpit to effect change.”
A pernicious double-whammy
Even by American standards of mobility, Michelle Obama’s journey from the South Side of Chicago to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. is remarkable. But in her book, she speaks of facing — along with everyone else — the pernicious double-whammy of modern life: a shift in food norms and a sedentary lifestyle that has made half the country’s population overweight or obese and, for the first time, created a generation of children with a shorter life expectancy than their parents.