Foodies Celebrate White House Veggie Garden

Garden is a victory for organic food fans, despite terrible economy and critics.

March 19, 2009, 9:42 AM

March 20, 2009— -- Bringing fresh food from the farm to the plate for a healthy dinner isn't easy at the end of a busy day, but the Obama family has a plan.

Foodies and environmentalists are thrilled about the Obamas' plans to break ground today on a new White House vegetable garden in their yard.

"A garden like this is one of those small gestures that is powerfully symbolic," Michael Pollan, author of "Omnivores Dilemma" and vocal advocate for agricultural reform, told ABC News.

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"At a time of economic crisis, a garden can provide a surprisingly large amount of fresh, healthy produce," Pollan said. "But just as important, it teaches important habits of mind -- helping people to reconnect with their food, eat more healthily on a budget and recognize that we're less dependent on the industrial food chain, and cheap fossil fuel, than we assume."

Planting and tending to your garden is certainly easier if you live in the White House and have a full-time gardening staff. But busy, working parents with little time and money do not have to resort to fast food, said Tracey Seaman, author of "Real Food for Healthy Kids."

"It's a real challenge because organic stuff is still pricier than the conventional," said Seaman, a single, working mother of two teenagers. "I think parents have to choose what's really important."

Daniel Bowman Simon, who spearheaded the White House Organic Farm Project, insisted a family vegetable garden does not have to be expensive.

"If a family's going to be committed to doing its own gardening, $100 can go a long way," he said.

"In the few months since the election, the economic situation obviously necessitated a lot more people thinking about how are they going to feed themselves," Simon said.

This year, about 43 million U.S. households intend to grow their own fruits, vegetables, berries, and herbs -- up 19 percent from just last year -- according to data from the National Gardening Association. Saving money on bills was the No. 2 reason they gave for digging in.

Michelle Obama has said she wants to make the White House vegetable garden an opportunity to talk about America's diet.

"We want to use it as a point of education, to talk about health and how delicious it is to eat fresh food, and how you can take that food and make it part of a healthy diet," she told Oprah Winfrey in the April issue of O magazine, first reported by food writer Eddie Gehman Kohan. "You know, the tomato that's from your garden tastes very different from one that isn't. And peas -- what is it like to eat peas in season? So we want the White House to be a place of education and awareness. And, hopefully, kids will be interested because there are kids living here [in the White House]."

Simon said Michelle Obama has the leeway to tout issues off the beaten path of the major issues on the administration's agenda.

"If the president got up there and said, 'Today, we're inaugurating a garden,' and said, 'Forget about AIG and all of that,' the talk shows would have a field day," he said. "But the first lady can be whatever change she wants to see."

Making Healthy Eating Accessible

In a troubled economy, the cost of shipping food across the country instead of growing and buying local products can add up. But so can the price of eating organic because foods cultivated without the use of things like conventional pesticides, antibiotics and growth hormones require a little more work and care. Not all students eat lunch like Sasha and Malia Obama do at their private school, where lunches like pad thai, asparagus and quiche are organic, trans-fat free and locally sourced.

"We're all in the middle of a recession, like we're all going to start buying expensive organic food and running to the 'green' market," renowned chef Anthony Bourdain said in a January interview with

Alice Waters, the nation's leading advocate for sustainable agriculture, has been pushing for the Obamas to take the lead on food policy and plant a garden, most recently on CBS' "60 Minutes."

Waters recently defended herself against critics like Bourdain.

"I feel that good food should be a right and not a privilege and it needs to be without pesticides and herbicides," Waters told CBS' Lesley Stahl this weekend on "60 Minutes." "And everybody deserves this food. And that's not elitist."

To make healthy eating more accessible, author Seaman suggested going to a warehouse store like Costco and splitting food costs with a friend. She also suggested cooking a few dishes on the weekends that will last for the days ahead. Though that requires organization and a little time, Seaman said homemade meals using inexpensive ingredients do not have to break the bank.

Alice Lichtenstein, professor of nutrition at the School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston, said planting a garden and encouraging children to eat well should be applauded. But she cautioned that not everyone can access fresh vegetables, particularly at certain times of the year.

"During winter months in the Northeast, fresh vegetables can be hard to come by," Lichtenstein said. "It's important for people to understand that frozen vegetables can be of a higher quality, and more affordable, than fresh."

Previous Gardens at the White House

The announcement of plans to build a vegetable garden at the White House is a victory for the advocates who have been pushing for one since long before the Obamas moved in.

Simon and his partner Casey Gustowarow did so predominately from a bus with a rooftop garden, driving around the country before the election to gather signatures in support of an effort to go organic at the White House.

Simon sent signatures, now totaling about 15,000, to the Obama transition team before the inauguration.

"Regardless of red state or blue state where we traveled, people thought this would be a wonderful idea no matter who moved into the White House," Simon told

Shortly after the president's election, Daniel Humm, executive chef at New York City's Eleven Madison Park, told, "They could have a great herb garden around the White House, or they could have their own chickens or their own eggs. That would be really cool to see. It also would be a great thing to see for the kids, as well."

Still, the Obamas' garden will not be the first to grace the grounds of the White House.

John Adams planted the first vegetable garden in 1800 to help offset the cost of entertaining guests, according to historian William Bushong of the White House Historical Association. White House staff also shopped at a nearby farmer's market throughout the 19th century.

Eleanor Roosevelt famously planted a vegetable garden on the grounds that author Pollan said "inspired a victory garden movement that led to the creation of 20 million gardens growing some 40 percent of America's fresh produce during the war."

The soil was too poor to sustain it, Bushong said.

Walter Scheib, former chef for Presidents Clinton and Bush, has said the White House also has a rooftop garden.

The 16-acre White House complex is maintained by the National Park Service, but one worker told ABC News that the White House residence staff will handle sowing and planting in the new veggie garden.

ABC News' Ann Compton and Sunlen Miller contributed to this report.

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