Roots Politics: Planting a Seed

Thanks to Woodrow Wilson's second wife, Edith, sheep grazed near the White House during World War I.
Thanks to Woodrow Wilson's second wife, Edith, sheep grazed near the White House during World War I. (Library Of Congress)

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By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, February 28, 2008

I've been following the presidential campaign news, and I can't believe no one has asked the big question: Which candidate will pledge to be the Gardening President? Who will be the one to take the lead in teaching food self-sufficiency and good nutrition to the American public? What a fine example it would set if the food miles traveled by presidential produce added up to zero.

Chef and food activist Alice Waters made headlines in 2000 by urging President Bill Clinton to plant a vegetable garden at the White House. "Send me the seeds, Alice" was his answer, as quoted in the St. Petersburg Times. But the plan was deemed out of keeping with the grounds' formal style, and nothing came of it. Perhaps Hillary Clinton, if elected, would be willing to see it through.

The idea certainly has historical precedent. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were dedicated farmers. According to William Seale, author of "The White House Garden," the first kitchen garden at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was installed by President John Adams in 1800 -- to cut household expenses.

I contacted Rose Hayden-Smith, an expert on the history of wartime gardening and agriculture programs during both world wars, and she highlighted some of the first families' efforts in the last century. Woodrow Wilson's second wife, Edith, "raised sheep on the former White House lawn during World War I as part of the White House's war mobilization effort," Hayden-Smith noted. "Eleanor Roosevelt was a Victory Gardener, and grew beans and carrots on what had been the White House Lawn. This was going on by 1943. She inspired millions of other home gardeners in their efforts." Jimmy Carter, another farmer at heart, paid particular attention to the herb garden.

Perhaps the time has come to bring back the Victory Garden in a new guise: as a war on childhood obesity, inactivity, addiction to highly processed food with empty calories, and the use of fossil fuels to grow and ship us our meals.

Roger Doiron, the director of Kitchen Gardeners International ( http://www.kitchengardeners.org), had a great suggestion: "We give tax breaks to people to encourage them to put hybrid cars in their garages and solar panels on their roofs, so why not a tax break to encourage environmentally friendly and healthy food production?" He likened his plan to deducting the square footage of a home office: the bigger your garden, the better the tax break. Those with no yard could deduct the rental fee for a community garden plot.

That would be one small step toward a healthier nation. But it would get my vote.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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