Whose White House Organic Garden?

When Youth Lead…


May 1, 2009

100 days into the Presidency of Barack Obama, one of the new administration's most popular decisions — a move that only the pesticide-peddling MidAmerica CropLife Association could oppose — was ripping up a section of the South Lawn of the White House to plant an organic vegetable garden.

In the wake of Michelle Obama beginning to plant the organic veggie garden this March, a chorus of media voices scrutinized the cultural and agricultural significance of this symbolic new “First Garden.” From the New York Times, Washington Post, and USA Today to The Nation, much of America’s media, joined by leading proponents of sustainable food like Alice Waters and Michael Pollan, has in recent weeks enthusiastically echoed and acclaimed Michelle Obama’s charismatic message to the country that growing and eating fresh, pesticide-free food is healthy and delicious, if not patriotic.

Yet in the rush to applaud this timely, important message while reporting on its unfolding societal impact, the mass media’s response fell too far into hyperbole and speculation that reflexively overplayed the particular impact of the White House organic garden. Rather than viewing it as just one more example — albeit an unusually high-profile one — of America's already fast-spreading resurgence of local, organic and homegrown food, the media tended to aggrandize this garden at the expense of reporting in depth on the successes and challenges of the wider sustainable food movement.

Nearly alone among the mainstream US media, USA Today placed the White House organic garden firmly within the context of a nationwide "gardening renaissance." This "back-to-the-earth movement," it said, "comes at the crossroads of several trends: tight family food budgets, an environmental movement focused on modestly practical things one person can do, and food safety scares on everything from meat to nuts." Even before the White House organic garden was announced, the National Gardening Association predicted a 19 percent rise in 2009 household gardening, and seed companies were reporting a 20 to 30 percent boom in sales.

But in general, the mass media missed the ball on reporting the White House organic garden as part of a wide-ranging social movement with roots in countless local communities. Consequently, through the prism of media infatuation with the star power of Barack and Michelle Obama’s example, what might be the most relevant, radical and inspiring dimension of the White House organic garden — its engagement with youth — has been largely cropped out of public view.

First, the Obamas were pressed by a savvy grassroots campaign, led by a couple of twenty-something activists, that called for the renewal of organic food production on the White House lawn for the first time since Eleanor Roosevelt's "Victory Garden." But then, Michelle Obama was joined by a class of fifth-graders from Bancroft Elementary School who have helped her plant the garden. While most media have at least recognized their presence, these children have generally been cast and forgotten as incidental supporting actors to the First Lady rather than seen seriously as current and future leaders who themselves can develop to usher America to a more sustainable food system.

Foremost among the challenges facing the future of US agriculture is the national imperative to transition away from an aging conventional agricultural workforce that is trained almost exclusively in the petroleum-based and chemical-intensive practices that US eaters increasingly reject, and toward the younger and more ecologically minded farmers who are necessary to ensure a viable future supply of healthy food.

Fortunately, Michelle Obama herself has emphasized the role of youth in the process of transforming America's food system. By bringing a group of 10 and 11 year-old kids into the creation and cultivation of the White House organic garden, Michelle demonstrated that America's children can both understand and participate in the process of growing fresh food, rather than just being consumers of the food that is marketed to them. Even more important, she acknowledged that young people can become leaders demanding good, fresh food and empowering its wider availability throughout society.

"My hope is that children will begin to educate their families [about healthy eating] and that will, in turn, begin to educate our communities," she said.

The next step must be to reflect this awareness in public policy that supports and expands the next generation of sustainable food growers at a pace at least equal to the aging and declining numbers of conventional farmers. Yet already, the educational impetus that Michelle Obama called for is more than the idle hope of progressive political idealism. Whether by design or coincidence, the White House organic garden is feeding into and leveraging a significant existing social trend. Across the USA, the proliferation of youth-led and -centered gardening, farming and healthy eating initiatives is one of the most stunning successes of local and sustainable food movements. >From school gardens and Farm-to-School programs to the first rising shoots of a new crop of young farmers, campus food activists and urban food visionaries, America's next generation is perhaps the clearest evidence that the country's hunger for better food is more durable than a fad and much deeper than the Baby Boomer embrace of healthful living.

Over eight thousand US schools are directly connected to local farms that provide produce used in cafeteria meals. In California alone, school gardens are flourishing at more than three thousand public schools. A new national student campaign, the Real Food Challenge, is pushing for a billion-dolar expansion of sustainable food procurement on college and university campuses and this winter organized five regional summits bringing together student food activists. Even stodgy old Slow Food USA, not long ago reputed to be the bastion of upscale foodie elitism, is hard at work getting a makeover. Last year their Youth Food Movement coordinated the attendance of 600 young US food leaders as delegates to Terra Madre in Italy, the biggest international gathering ever of sustainable food growers and advocates. Meanwhile, networks like Rooted In Community, Building Local Agricultural Systems Today (BLAST), and the Growing Food and Justice for All Initiative are building diverse youth leadership for food justice in communities of color across the US.

But as remarkable as this all is, the picture of America's young people fermenting for a sustainable future is even more astonishing when the youth food movement is juxtaposed with the student climate movement that made its awesome national debut this winter in Washington, DC.

In late February, the spectacle of 12,000 young climate activists converging in DC for clean energy, green jobs and an end to the burning of coal was a jolt to the country's Democratic leadership. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid announced their agreement to the movement's top demand — cessation of coal use at the Capitol Power Plant that heats Congress — even before thousands marched through the snow-covered streets to physically surround that icon of dirty energy. And this was just the beginning.

"What began partly as an environmental movement, brought together to prevent the ecological disaster of climate change," reported Huffington Post, "has morphed into a far-reaching movement tackling issues as far ranging as equity, justice and economic reform. This youth movement is setting out to dissolve the inequities and injustices of the current energy system, to empower and lift up communities, and to build the kind of economy they ultimately want to work and live in."

Thus the amazing truth is that America today, in the midst of the early stages of our most traumatic financial meltdown and economic contraction since the Great Depression, is experiencing the rapid and simultaneous emergence, growth and maturation of two large and independent youth movements. While the youth climate movement is pursuing grand ambitions of revolutionizing the energy base of how our local, regional and national economies function, the youth food movement is focused somewhat more narrowly on the goal of reclaiming a healthy food supply.

These movements and objectives are now, at best, only loosely connected. Yet the two movements may come to realize that the goals they have in common warrant the formation of strategic alliances. And if this consciousness were to take root, the resulting mass movement could have the potential to enlist the numbers and organizational strength to sweep away obstacles toward the dramatic change for a sustainable future that many youth now believe is essential.

As Mark Hertsgaard noted in The Nation's story on the White House organic garden, "Humanity cannot hope to halt global warming unless emissions from the food sector are cut dramatically. As currently constituted, the global food system is a climate killer. The American diet [of highly processed food derivatives], and the food production and distribution system that supports it, is one of the main drivers of global warming and a host of related hazards, from deforestation to air, soil and water pollution."

However, by comparing today's era to the past impact of Eleanor Roosevelt's Victory Garden which, by the end of World War II, helped drive home gardeners to produce nearly half of the fruit and vegetables eaten by Americans, Hertsgaard drew the wrong historical analogy. "If Obama's organic garden proves equally inspiring, she could spark a new green revolution—and not a moment too soon," he concluded.

Perhaps, but there are at least three critical differences between then and today. First, in the 1940s, industrial agribusiness was on the upswing, supplying the USA's military troops abroad with their rations of processed food. Today, while the sheer productivity of US agribusiness remains the envy of the world, it has become rife with evidence of stress, decay, waste, and unsustainable resource consumption. Now, we need to not only further spread the resurgence of local and organic agriculture, including home and community gardening, but must also transform the mono-cultures of large-scale agribusiness into diversified fields and forests that actually produce nutritious food while protecting and restoring the environment, with a fraction of the greenhouse gas emissions. If we don't address the urgent need for comprehensive agricultural reform along the lines of the recommendations proposed by the US Working Group on the Food Crisis and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the bitter reality is that food shortages could bring down civilization.

Second, with America's prototypical farmer now nearing the age of 60 and retirement, we cannot count on the past generation of agricultural specialists to lead this shift. This 21st century food revolution will instead require creative new policies and incentives to encourage a much larger influx of younger food producers committed to sustainability. If sufficient numbers of youth and young adults are to become the new farmers rising to this immense challenge, it will need to be inspired by a vision of agricultural renewal and rootedness that is much more expansive than by the Obama's tremendously welcome — but nonetheless tiny — organic garden. As Virginia Tech sustainability coordinator Andy Sarjahani writes, "It is absolutely essential to push boundaries in public policy right now that lure young Americans into the unpredictable, yet fulfilling agrarian life of a small-scale producer of food." In this respect, we could learn from the model of Growing Power's Youth Corps in Chicago, and implement a national program training and employing young people to be leaders for the growth of sustainable agriculture foodsheds across America.

Third, and perhaps most important, today we have vibrant sustainability movements that could be perfectly positioned to demand, plan and help lead this food revolution. Yet all too often, these movements are divided through their strategic focus on narrow issue-based objectives rather than building collective multi-issue power for holistic transformation. In the ecological rhythms of the natural world, the ways that humans produce food and global warming are far too intimately connected to be considered the domains of separate activist movements or government policies. We have much to gain by learning more about food-climate links and then, by targeting these links with synergy and coherence, reflecting this knowledge in inter-connected struggles for substantive change.

For example, do we need a fusion of food-climate policy activism to counter the agribusiness lobby's drive to exempt agricultural greenhouse gas emissions from proposed new climate law? Could we learn a lesson from Japan, of all places, and push to give sustainable agriculture a bigger role in the implementation of Green Jobs legislation? Should we unite forces to actively pressure President Obama to follow through on his campaign promise to end subsidies for the largest factory farms, while demanding greater funding and infrastructure in support of small and sustainable farmers? Should we more adamantly question and oppose the policy of mandating biofuels production, which we can now see is destructive in terms of both food security and climate mitigation?

In the same vein, sustainable food activists and growers must find more ways to step out of our comfort zone and link with other movements and struggles that impact our work. For example, global warming and drought are already devastating the food production of many arable lands, from California and Texas to China and Australia — and this trend will only worsen as temperatures continue to rise. Does it make sense, then, for sustainable food movements to get involved with supporting and strengthening the grassroots movements, from indigenous Black Mesa, Arizona to the bombed-out mountains and communities of Appalachia, to replace the destructiveness of coal with clean and renewable forms of energy? Can we continue to look the other way while tens of thousands of tons of coal ash, a waste product created by burning coal, are "recycled" as a toxic amendment to the soils of US croplands? With the US Department of Defense lodged as the world's single largest institutional consumer of oil, should the food and climate movements both join peace activists to mobilize against Obama's escalation of war in Afghanistan?

The sustainability consciousness that is bubbling up from youth already contains the seeds of such connections. When young climate activists took the streets of Washington DC on March 1, they self-divided into affinity groups carrying various colored banners that marched to and shut down the Capitol Power Plant's different entrances. The green section of the march held a banner demanding "Justice" that depicted a farmer tending his seedlings. "Food Not Bombs! Plant a Garden on the White House Lawn!" the group chanted.

Yes, the symbolic victories of planting an organic garden at the White House and shutting down coal use at the Capitol Power Plant are phenomenal indicators of how the organized strength of youth activism can force progressive change within the United States democratic system. But these victories are only a small start. Now we must build and connect our movements to win much deeper and more systemic change. If youth continue to lead the way in this historic task, it is likely that the larger social movements and democratic processes of which we are part — and the United States as a whole — will follow.

Ethan Genauer is a young farmer, food justice activist, and freelance environmental journalist. In 2008, he assisted La Placita Gardens, a youth-led community farm in Albuquerque, and traveled from Los Angeles to New Mexico with the White House Organic Farm Project's bus tour across the United States. This is the first article in a series exploring the youth food movement, its hopes and struggles, and emerging links between food and climate change activism.

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