Planting Policy: The White House Garden

As spring fast approaches, 42 million American households are beginning to plan and design their gardens. Over the last five years, Americans have planted 17 percent more home gardens, an indication that an increasing number of families place an importance on growing their own food. One such family is the First Family. The Obamas’ 1,000 square foot garden on the South Lawn features 25 varieties of herbs, fruits, and vegetables from four different growing seasons, including okra, sweet potatoes, and raspberries. This extensive plot clearly differs from the majority of home gardens in America, but not just due to its proximity to the Oval Office. Michelle Obama’s garden is a physical manifestation of her Let’s Move campaign, and has grown to represent its commitment to combatting obesity and educating Americans about nutrition.

The Obamas are only the latest in a chain of presidents who have used the design and diversity of the White House garden to reflect their goals and promote political change. The policies surrounding the White House garden reflect one of the major challenges every president faces — how to balance the dual roles of being a leader and a follower of public opinion. Since Americans in the past were more entrenched in the agrarian lifestyle and home gardens were more ubiquitous, presidents followed suit by planting their own gardens. Originally, the White House garden was not meant as a political statement or a model for the rest of the country to follow. Rather, the presidential family, like the majority of American families before the industrial revolution, relied on its home garden as a main supply of produce.

Presidents soon capitalized on this connection with everyday people and began to engage with the White House garden to promote their goals. During the Civil War, Mary Todd Lincoln gave leftover vegetables to wounded Union soldiers. In the midst of World War I, Woodrow Wilson’s “Victory Garden” encouraged Americans to support the war effort by growing their own food. Eleanor Roosevelt even regrew the Victory Garden during World War II as a similar reminder of American duty and loyalty. In the 1970s, Jimmy Carter installed solar panels among his vegetables to demonstrate his commitment to renewable energy during the OPEC oil embargo.

Today’s iteration, dubbed the White House Kitchen Garden, demonstrates the Obama Administration’s commitment to enhancing the health and nutritional education of both the Obama sisters and schoolchildren nationwide. Michelle Obama’s choice to center her policy legacy on combatting obesity and promoting children’s health stems from her own challenges in raising her now-teenage daughters, Sasha and Malia. When the First Family moved into the residence in 2009, Michelle Obama followed in the footsteps of former influential first ladies, like Eleanor Roosevelt, by linking the White House garden with her political agenda. The Kitchen Garden represents her commitment to bettering her own family’s health and providing a model for the rest of the country to follow. The modern revival of American gardening — a 200 percent increase since 2008 — both guides the Obamas’ aims and is encouraged by them. While the Obamas look to inspire young families, the largest population of new gardeners, they also reflect these voters’ interests.

While the Obamas looks to brand themselves as an example of a healthy family, the average American clearly does not have the time, money, or lawn space to grow the majority of his or her own produce. The White House garden, in its diversity and abundance, could reasonably be seen as representing the elite foodie movement, alienating those without the privilege to focus so heavily on their own nutrition. Food writer Julie Guthman writes that many Americans have subscribed to “healthism,” a doctrine that devolves nutritional responsibility to the individual. The media often propagates this image that all people should be engaged in a daily diet and exercise routine — ideally one filled with yoga and smoothie bowls.

Before long, the White House garden became intertwined with the president’s political agenda.

Arguably, the White House Kitchen Garden’s decision to plant trendy produce such as kale does assume some aspects of “healthism.” However, the Let’s Move campaign counters the devolution of responsibility to the individual by increasing federal policy regarding health guidelines. The 2010 Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act (HHFKA) heightened governmental control over school lunch programs by authorizing the Department of Agriculture to set nutritional standards for all foods sold in schools. While the Obama’s garden could be perceived as a symbol of presidential opulence, the reality of the Administration’s stance on food is much more distributive, as it promotes the nutrition of all Americans through federal guidance, not abandoning individuals to craft healthy lives on their own.

These actions have also received criticism of a different nature. The increased USDA regulation of school lunch may be a sign of government paternalism; individual families, not the Obamas, should be the judges of what their children should eat. However, the Obama Administration’s larger — and arguably more sustainable — goal is to counter obesity not through standards and regulations, but through education. The HHFKA’s $4.5 billion in funding also contributes to an expansion of wellness and Farm-to-School programs that provide local produce to schools while also teaching students about where their food comes from and how to prepare healthy meals from that produce. The White House Kitchen Garden itself provides a model for Farm-to-School programs: Groups of students and teachers can register for free guided tours of the garden just by visiting the White House website. In 2009, a group of Washington, D.C. 5th graders helped Michelle Obama plant the first garden, and other school groups from across the country are invited to participate in the harvest of the first crops every summer. By shifting the focus from top-down federal control to grassroots educational empowerment, the Obama Administration neither abandons nor commands American families, but instead promotes healthy living for current and future generations.

After only eight years, it remains difficult to measure the Obama Administration’s long-term impact on reversing the tide of American childhood obesity, or even determining what role the Kitchen Garden has played. However, the immediate successes of Let’s Move are evident in the number of government agencies, corporations, and organizations that have incorporated produce consumption and nutrition into food policy enhancement. In 2012, the Department of Defense announced a major update to its nutritional standards, ensuring that food served in military dining halls now includes more fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Even family-friendly chain restaurants like Olive Garden have committed to improving their kids’ meals by offering a fruit or vegetable as a side dish and low-fat milk instead of soda.

However, just because a restaurant offers a healthier option doesn’t mean that the child will choose it. The Obama Administration’s commitment to nutritional education, alongside federal policies that guide Americans and organizations toward making healthy decisions, increases the likelihood that that kids, and their parents, will pick fresh fruit over fries. This scenario becomes even more probable if the child belongs to the ever-increasing number of families who tend their own gardens and therefore have direct identification with their food.

As the Obamas shape and follow public opinion by expanding the White House garden, the Kitchen Garden nevertheless remains an integral part of teaching Americans the important connection between nurturing food and nurturing their bodies. Hopefully, the president who inherits the garden in 2016 will not let it go to seed.