Going Mainstream With the Obama Vegetable Garden

Michelle Obama with kids who planted seedlings in the White House garden
First Lady Michelle Obama with a group of students after planting seedlings in the White House Kitchen Garden in April 2016. She was joined by NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman and Astronaut Cady Coleman. Photo Credit: (NASA/Aubrey Gemignani)

I’m a cynic when it comes to The New York Times and its reporting on culture, trends, dining, and style. Though I’m a fan of what is now seemingly one of the few print newspapers left in the world, normally, by the time it reports on, for example, a breakthrough “underground” album, that album is no longer breakthrough and it’s certainly no longer underground. The inescapable truth of the mainstream media is that it reports on and is viewed by, well, the mainstream — and not the underground.

So when I read in The Times that group of fifth graders from a D.C. elementary school will help Michelle Obama dig up the soil for a planned 1,100-square-foot vegetable garden, my cynicism goes out the window and all I can think is “How cool is this?” If The Times is reporting on this, perhaps community gardening is becoming mainstream!

It’s sad that that’s still my reaction, particularly since, for years, I’ve reported on, and been involved in local food initiatives. There is still a gee-whiz quality to the Slow Food movement that is foreign to some, as well as something of an “I-drive-a-hybrid” righteousness, which only turns off people on the outside.

So to see the Obamas, who are, if anything, gifted in their groundedness, doing some good ol’ hippie gardening, maybe more people in the cities and ‘burbiest of ‘burbs with a big backyard will do the same, and it won’t be perceived as weird or “earthy.”

Organic gardening and community gardens are nothing new, but they are anything but mainstream in a world of Costco and Sam’s Club, and in an age when everything is in season — always, because it’s shipped in from who-knows-where. You know the workman’s adage that “it’s five o’ clock somewhere”? Same applies with seasons in the food industry.

Our, at least my, previous generalized notion of the White House and its occupants is so standard, buttoned-up, inside-the-Beltway Box, that thinking of Mrs. Obama, the president, their kids, and a group of nearby public schoolers getting their hands dirty as they plant cilantro, chard, and berries, is just wonderful. There’s really no other way to describe it.

Aside from community gardens that have served as glue for neighborhoods, providing much of the same sense of community as a place of worship does, around the country, countless public school districts are engaging their own community gardening projects, not only to instill a sense of agrarian savvy into youths who would otherwise never be exposed to that, but to also underscore the importance of knowing the source of your food.

There are too many programs to name in one Rooflines post, but what are some projects in your area? Let’s hear about them.

Matthew Brian Hersh served as senior editor at Shelterforce from March 2008 to October 2012. He studied English at Rutgers University and has spent his professional career in journalism, policy, and politics.


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