President-elect Barack Obama has a lot on his agenda -- and in January his plate will be even fuller. But perhaps come spring, the President can fill the actual White House china with sustainable, homegrown fare. After he saves the economy, begins timely withdrawals from Iraq and negotiates with unruly world leaders, Mr. Obama ought to get his hands dirty by planting a White House vegetable garden.
If the Obama family begins its occupancy of the White House by sowing seeds in late winter and early spring, they will watch a first garden grow in the back yard of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue -- and Americans will watch with them. First families set the standards for the behavior of American households and this family, with all of its comparisons to Camelot, is arguably more idolized and socially influential than any since the Kennedys. Yet for all of the sweeping changes Obama hopes to introduce, none would be more subtle or significant than influencing Americans' relationship to food.
Alice Waters, pioneer of sustainable eating, wrote to the Clintons several times during their tenure in office. She begged the first family to plant and maintain a garden to show the American populace the value of the food cycle in developing a sense of community and a healthy national future -- both in body and culture. In a letter from 1995, Waters implored the Clintons to help with her Edible Schoolyard project. "Help us nourish our children by bringing them back to the table, where we can pass on our most humane values. Help us create a demand for sustainable agriculture, for it is at the core of sustaining everyone's life," she wrote.
Unfortunately, neither Clinton responded to the plea, despite Waters' consistent reiterations and increasingly emphatic correspondence. It's unclear whether she has yet to limn like requests to Barack and Michelle, though they would be wise to preempt the ardent appeals. (In addition to pacifying the protest-prone Berkeley crowd, the Obamas could also gain an advantage over the former Democratic first family: as much as the clans have reconciled, Barack can always afford a leadership leg-up on Bill.)
But planting and maintaining a garden at the White House would do more than win over the hearts and guts of food enthusiasts. It would bring the message of hope and change down to Earth -- and earthworms. Imagine the president offering Gordon Brown or Dmitry Medvedev panzanella made from homegrown tomatoes and basil. The gesture would give new meaning to breaking bread (salad).
Irony aside, a garden is the most elemental way for the Obamas to connect with the land and its people. Sustainable farming is no longer just a hippie buzzword: it is an increasingly necessary way of life. As the economy falters, members of this newly appointed first family would do well to show that they can roll up their sleeves, collaborate, and sustain themselves directly from the land.
Imagine the message students on White House field trips would get from an Obama-tended garden. Not only would it show an immediate resourcefulness and connection with the earth, but it would also illustrate that the President is actively connected with his body, his environment and the community with which he shares his food. In a 1996 letter to President Clinton, Waters asserted, "There is a growing consensus that many of our social and political problems have arisen because we are alienated from meaningful participation in the everyday act of feeding ourselves." An Executive garden would be a significant step in re-establishing this connection: more than likely, thousands of Americans would follow the Obama example, as they have already done.
Now that the long slog of the campaign trail has drawn to a close and Obama no longer needs to face Philly cheese steaks and fried dough to appeal to voters eager to feed a potential President, he should set an example for a new American table -- one that prides itself on respect for the fruits of the Earth and the labor necessary to yield them. If Obama were to plant a thriving White House vegetable garden, this hopeful electorate could see how the land, and our treatment of it, is a basic ingredient for an enduring, enterprising and optimistic American spirit.
If nothing else, the Obama Victory garden should be planted as a symbol of the hope the President-elect so often spoke of: seeds should be sown to show Americans what the promise of new life looks like as this eight-year winter finally begins to thaw.