There were some stirrings in the news this week about Michelle Obama planting a vegetable garden in the White House grounds. According to the Huffington Post, she broke ground on it today. Arguing that the White House’s main ambition in gardening is a public stunt to illustrate their commitment to all things “green” is perhaps the first inclination of the critic, yet there is a whole lot more going on here. The garden, which is planned to provide the White House with vegetables and herbs, is a continuation of the grassroots campaigning of the Obama Administration, the fruit, if you will, of the eternal campaign. However, more than anything else, this garden represents the sea change brought by a new generation of Americans taking to politics and the culture that stems from them.
Back in March 2008 I was, like many Americans, trying to figure out which side of the Democratic fence I sat on, Clinton or Obama. I began to consider not the political, but the cultural implications of an Obama First Family. For better or worse, the First Family has at its disposal incredible influence on the American family image. The Bush Family remained rather private throughout their eight years; Laura Bush and the Bush twins retained their privacy and autonomy, which one can only commend them for, as it is their right as the most visible family in America. And before them, the Clinton family’s progressive undertones (an only child, Hillary’s professional past and White House activism, cat rather than dog) attracted all sorts of attention, most of it on Chelsea, who had the misfortune of being the sole heir of the family, a weight few First Family children have had to bear. In these past families, the role of the First Lady has been a tenuous distinction; by and large, no one chooses to be one. As America’s new power couple, the Obama’s have so far been using the power of the First Family to establish cultural and social memes. From Michelle O’s wardrobe (most notably, wearing flats rather than heels, which contribute to a bevy of health issues in women), Malia and Sasha’s swing set, to their obvious mutual respect and love, the Obama family have been using their célébrité to illustrate a more coherent portrait of the middle class American family, despite their ability to live otherwise.
So with the breaking ground of a White House vegetable garden, the Obama’s are picking up a very important meme that has been trying to reach the top of the culture machine for a long time: small-scale organic farming. Notable California chef Alice Waters has been trying for decades to get a White House garden because, like the model First Family themselves, a First Garden will inspire a generation of Americans. Michelle O’s garden has been called a “victory” garden after the gardens planted during WWI and WWII to provide extra food. Associating the new White House garden with gardens planted to aid the country in wartime emphasizes just how important the issue of food in America is to both the Administration and to every American. Our country has amazing amounts of arable land which could be used to grow vegetables yet are given over to environmentally destructive livestock cultivation (on livestock and water usage: here; on how large-scale livestock production is destroying the planet: here). Our dependence on monoculture crops and, to say it plainly, fatty beef, contributes to our growing obese population and the ensuing preventable health issues. Most Americans live in small towns surrounded by farmland yet rarely ever eat food from their local farmers due to the draconian nature of farming subsidies which discourage growing food for communities and encourage exports for financial gain (more on this here). Eating, buying, and growing locally is the first step on the path to a healthier and more environmentally sustainable America. Michelle Obama has realized this and has spoken about it several times and now she’s making good on her words. I hope that the White House garden inspires Americans to plant their own gardens, to participate in community gardening, and support their local farmers.