Painting the White House Green

The White House Kitchen Garden (Lelkund/Flickr Creative Commons)

An Educational Garden in the Most Famous Residence in Country

While many school and community gardens are created in playgrounds, on roofs, and in abandoned lots, today we will be visiting a garden that is most definitely not planted on a vacant property. The White House Kitchen Garden is instead located on the beautifully manicured lawns of the most well known residence in the country. The garden, visible to the general public passing by the White House, is located on the South Lawn. Over the past two years, it has become a symbol of health and sustainability, championing Michelle Obama’s cause of ending childhood obesity.

Despite the enormous popularity of the White House Kitchen Garden, the beautifully kept garden on the south lawn has not always been there. Throughout White House history, there have been various attempts to build and maintain a garden, but one of the only full functioning gardens was Eleanor Roosevelt’s victory garden. The victory garden was planted during World War II in an attempt to encourage others to do the same in order to alleviate food shortages produced by the war effort. Since the Roosevelt’s, however, there has not been a fully functioning White House Garden until the Obama’s came along.

Advocates of sustainable food have been pushing for a White House garden for decades.  In 1995, Alice Waters, the chef of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA and founder of The Edible Schoolyard Project, wrote a letter to President Clinton encouraging him to build a garden on the White House grounds in order to help create a demand for sustainable agriculture. “The present administration has the chance to invigorate public dialogue by turning our attention to how food must be at the center of our lives,” she says in her letter. “Talk about it; promote it as part of the schools curriculum; encourage the spread of farmers markets; and demonstrate it with organic gardens on the grounds of the White House and the Vice Presidential mansion.” While Clinton was initially supportive of a White House garden, ultimately, Hilary Clinton planted only a small rooftop garden that did not accomplish Waters’ goal.

Michael Pollan, a writer and activist who focuses on food and sustainability, wrote a letter to Barak Obama in 2008, right before he took office. “Farmer in Chief”, which was published in the New York Times, urges Obama to focus on food.  Pollan urges Obama to create 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.” The movement must begin, he writes, with the First Family. A White House garden will create a powerful image – “the image of stewardship of the land, of self-reliance and of making the most of local sunlight to feed one’s family and community.” Kitchen Gardeners, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting sustainable local food systems, led the “Eat the View” campaign, creating a petition for a White House garden that attracted over 110,000 signatures.

In the spring of 2009, the campaign proved successful when Michelle Obama created a 1,100 square foot garden on the South Lawn. Mrs. Obama started the garden to feed her own family, but also as part of her Let’s Move! campaign to help solve the problem of childhood obesity. The campaign encourages community gardens as “a way to engage members of your community or congregation around healthy, local food.” Mrs. Obama also adds that gardens can serve as an educational tool.

Garden Layout (whitehouse.gov)

And the Obama’s have used the garden for just that purpose. The Bancroft Elementary School, a DC public school located less than three miles away from the White House has been involved in the White House garden from its inception. Fifty students from the Bancroft elementary school helped Mrs. Obama clear a section of lawn and plant the garden in March 2009. Since then, Obama has hosted groups of students at the garden where she speaks to them about eating healthily and sustainably and engages them in planting and harvesting in the garden. The video below is a speech that Mrs. Obama made to students from Bancroft in March, 2010, one year after the garden was started.

The garden, like all presidential actions, is not without controversy. The Obama’s decision to keep the garden entirely organic provoked a response from the Mid-America CropLife Association, who wrote a letter to Mrs. Obama calling for the use of “conventional agriculture” in the White House garden, particularly the use of “crop protection products” (i.e. pesticides). Still, the Obama’s have maintained the plan to keep their garden entirely organic.

October 5, 2011 garden harvest. Michelle Obama harvested vegetables with students from the Bancroft Elementary School (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

Less than a month ago, students from the Bancroft Elementary School again joined Mrs. Obama in the garden for the third annual fall harvest. Once the hard work of the harvesting was over, the students, together with the White House chefs, prepared grilled vegetable pizza.

Peter Ganong, a former resident of Washington D.C. has walked by the White House and noticed the activity in the garden. “I was inspired to see that gardening and a connection with the earth and food was a central part of the image of this white house,” he said. And that is exactly the goal of the White House Kitchen Garden – to inspire the public to connect with their food and the environment.

6 thoughts on “Painting the White House Green

  1. Hannah

    There was an episode of Iron Chef where they used vegetables from the White House garden and they showed the whole thing.

  2. Rebecca

    Anna, this is so interesting! The one time I went to the White House was in the dead of winter, so I wasn’t able to see the beautiful garden, but maybe now I will go back when it’s warmer and try to plant something!

  3. Julia

    I had no idea that the White House had a garden! I am so glad that you are publishing these blogs and getting the word out. Maybe if more everyone knew that the president has a garden, they would be more willing to plant one themselves!

    A wonderful blog, keep up the great work!

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