- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The White House grounds, with their well-tended trees and lush, but probably chemically enhanced, lawns would be great for growing salad greens, herbs, maybe a few melons and berries. That’s why Roger Doiron, founder of Kitchen Gardeners International, a nonprofit advocacy group, is leading a grass-roots effort to persuade President and Mrs. Obama and the White House chef to get out there and get gardening.

The movement, called Eat the View, has collected about 70,000 signatures urging Mr. Obama to plant an organic, edible garden in the first 100 days of his administration. Granted, Mr. Doiron admits, the president is mired in more pressing issues such as war and the economy right now, but as your mother said - you gotta eat.

“It’s not just about the president,” Mr. Doiron says. “It is about planting a garden that can inspire millions of gardeners at a time when we are looking for solutions to pick ourselves up. It is not about liberals or conservatives. It is about being an American.”

The idea of growing food at the White House isn’t exactly new, Mr. Doiron points out. Back when the United States was an agrarian society, gardening with a purpose was not at all unusual.

John Adams planted the first White House kitchen garden in 1800, and Thomas Jefferson added more vegetables and fruit trees. John Quincy Adams expanded the variety of herbs and vegetables, and Andrew Jackson built an orangery to grow tropical fruit.

When times were tough, the White House became a high-profile spot for agricultural solutions to national problems. Woodrow Wilson had a flock of sheep to mow and fertilize the lawn to conserve fuel and manpower during World War I.

Eleanor Roosevelt planted a Victory Garden on the grounds in 1943, during the thick of World War II, inspiring many citizens to do the same on their more modest pieces of a real estate.

Mrs. Roosevelt planted her garden despite the objections of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which feared homegrown produce would hurt the food industry. By the end of the war, more than 20 million home gardens were supplying 40 percent of the produce consumed in America.

Gardeners have been lobbying for a return to growing their own at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Renowned California restaurateur and cookbook author Alice Waters discussed organic gardening with former President Bill Clinton during his administration.

But that was the 1990s, when things seemed prosperous and accessible. With war, a slumping economy, rising food prices, outbreaks of food-borne illness and general malaise, a return to the land seems more realistic now, Mr. Doiron says.

“People now are struggling with the same kind of issues as they were during World War II,” he says.

Mr. Doiron says his own kitchen garden on a small suburban plot in Maine - which has a very short growing season - yielded what would have been $2,400 in produce in the past year.

Meanwhile, both White House chef Cristeta Comerford and first lady Michelle Obama have talked about their commitment to fresh, local and organic food. Mr. Doiron says Eat the View has been in touch with the first lady’s staff.

Mrs. Obama said in recent remarks at the Department of Agriculture, “I am a big believer in community gardens, because of their beauty and for their access to providing fresh fruits and vegetables to so many communities across this nation and the world.”

She also presented Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack with a seedling from one of Andrew Jackson’s magnolia trees from the south portico of the White House lawn.

Meanwhile, Eat the View has many influential foodies behind the effort. Ms. Waters has lent her support, as has Heather Coburn Flores, activist and author of “Food Not Lawns: How to Turn Your Yard Into a Garden and Your Neighborhood Into a Community.”

Michael Pollan, author of “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,” wrote an open letter to the next president in the New York Times Magazine in the fall. In it, he asked for the next White House inhabitants to set an example on the lawn and at the table.

“If what’s needed is a change of culture in America’s thinking about food, then how America’s first household organizes its eating will set the national tone, focusing the light of public attention on the issue and communicating a simple set of values that can guide Americans toward sun-based foods and away from eating oil,” he wrote.

“Since enhancing the prestige of farming as an occupation is critical to developing the sun-based regional agriculture we need, the White House should appoint, in addition to a White House chef, a White House farmer,” Mr. Pollan wrote. “This new post would be charged with implementing what could turn out to be your most symbolically resonant step in building a new American food culture. And that is this: Tear out five prime south-facing acres of the White House lawn and plant in their place an organic fruit and vegetable garden. The president should throw his support behind a new Victory Garden movement, this one seeking “victory” over three critical challenges we face today: high food prices, poor diets and a sedentary population.”


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