As Washington and the world continue to parse President Donald Trump’s announcement of a U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, an Obama administration legacy just steps from the Oval Office represents part of the solution to the climate change challenge.
Mrs. Obama spent her years as First Lady doing what no other had: taking on climate change. And it was all down to her love of vegetable gardening and drive to get America to eat healthier.
Her goal may have been healthy children, but Mrs. Obama’s White House Kitchen Garden spurred a movement that’s helping combat a warming planet. Food production accounts for roughly a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. Not all foods are created equal, though. Beef, for example, emits 20 times more greenhouse gases per gram of protein than common plant-based protein sources such as beans, peas and lentils. Plants are generally more land- and water-efficient at producing protein for human diets than animal-based foods. By choosing to create a vegetable garden rather than rearing sheep on the White House lawn (as Woodrow Wilson did), Mrs. Obama may not have realized it, but she scored a victory for addressing climate change.
That’s important because the climate impact of the average American’s diet is roughly on par with the climate impact of their energy use. This impact could be cut in half just by swapping some animal-based foods for plant-based ones like the 55 different varieties Mrs. Obama grew on the White House’s South Lawn.
Mrs. Obama is not the only First Lady to elevate the homely vegetable garden to national importance – Eleanor Roosevelt’s victory garden helped fortify Americans during World War II – but she is the first to have used her megaphone to raise the issue of healthy, plant-rich eating at a time when climate change threatens our future like never before. It’s so worrying that 200,000 people hit the streets of Washington in April (including yours truly) to urge the new administration to reverse course on climate change and listen to what the science is telling us.
Part of Mrs. Obama’s magic is that she made foods that are healthy for people and planet a passion project for so many others. The number of gardens in Washington, D.C. schools has grown by more than 50 percent since 2011. Beyond providing fresh and affordable vegetables, these gardens teach students about the environment and nutrition, as well as English, art and even engineering concepts. Chicago’s O’Hare Airport has an aeroponics garden that provides the airport’s restaurants with herbs and vegetables. And, inspired by the former First Lady’s efforts, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia began a garden right on campus, saying that “if the White House can do it, we can do it, too.”
Between 2008 and 2013, the number of millennial food gardeners sky-rocketed by 63 percent to 13 million. The number of U.S. farmers’ markets increased by more than 93 percent from 2006-2014, and public school districts purchased almost $800 million of locally and regionally sourced food in 2013 alone.
In her farewell speech, she spoke on the importance of hope, and let us in on her very personal hope that she has made us proud. As a fellow vegetable gardener, I can assure Mrs. Obama that she has.
Whether she set out to do it or not, she took an important step forward in correcting the unsustainable trajectory the planet is on. She made food production and food choice a topic of national conversation -- especially among our youngest, whose food choices will have a major impact on climate change and their own health for decades to come.
It’s time to stop treating nutrition, agriculture and environment as separate policy domains. Climate change is already spurring floods, fires and droughts that hurt farmers and threaten our food supply. Americans will be healthier when their food habits and policies align to promote sustainable, plant-rich nutrition and a thriving environment.
The former First Lady understood that what we grow and eat has profound impacts, even if she – like many Americans – may not fully realize just what shifting diets toward plant-based foods means for climate change. Intentional or not, Mrs. Obama carved out an indelible climate legacy. With her new role as private citizen, it will be exciting to see what’s next for Michelle Obama’s vegetable-first advocacy.