washingtonpost.com
On the Road For Change
The Goal: A Farm At the White House

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Daniel Bowman Simon and Casey Gustowarow didn't really have a plan when they set off on a cross-country drive in a topsy-turvy school bus with herbs, greens and root vegetables planted on the roof. But they didn't think they needed one. Their cause seemed so pure, so obviously righteous: to persuade the next president of the United States to grow food on the White House lawn.

But that was August. The days were bright and hot. And the only obstacle to an abundance of spinach and Swiss chard were 60-mph headwinds and highway fumes. In December, it was a different story. On one day when they were parked at the edge of Penn Quarter's Thursday farmers market, sheets of rain lashed the bus. It was too cold to sleep in the bus, too cold to grow anything on the roof, too miserable for anyone to stop and sign the White House Organic Farm (WHO Farm) petition.

Simon and Gustowarow have traveled through 25 states and collected 10,000 signatures. But they've yet to hear whether President-elect Barack Obama will consent to transform the South Lawn into a working farm.

Simon, 28, and Gustowarow, 27, aren't the first, or the most famous, to lobby for a White House garden. The idea became a cause celebre for food lovers during the presidential election campaign. Chez Panisse chef-owner Alice Waters and author Michael Pollan, gods of the sustainable-food movement, called on the new president to plant organic fruits and vegetables to feed the first family and stock local food pantries. In February, Maine gardener Roger Doiron launched an online campaign, dubbed Eat the View, with the same goal. Advocates say a first family garden could set an example for millions of Americans and, by promoting sustainable food, help tackle the awesome challenges of climate change, food safety and energy conservation.

The pair have made great sacrifices for the cause. Gustowarow left his job on a farm near Annapolis to make the cross-country journey. Simon paid $42,000 for a yellow school bus with half of another bus welded upside down on its top. Topsy Turvy, as the bus is known, was owned by Ben Cohen of Ben and Jerry's fame, who had it purpose-built to demonstrate what he saw as the country's upside-down budget priorities. The pair's four-month-long, 11,000-mile journey coincided with record prices at the gas pump -- and the bus averages only seven or eight miles to the gallon. "I'm in a lot of debt," Simon shrugs. "But it's what I'm excited about."

In a time of war and recession, a garden might not be at the top of the executive agenda. And it's not clear whether Simon and Gustowarow can put it there. They have little in common with many of the ambitious staffers who come to Washington. They're dreamers: soft-spoken, humble and more interested in their cause than in connections.

The friends met in 2003 while working in the Philippines for the Peace Corps. After returning home, Gustowarow went to work on a farm; Simon went to New York to help develop green roof projects.

In February, Simon attended a conference at Harvard University. There, Waters was honored and gave a speech in which she said that her two dreams were to create gardens at schools across the country and to see food grown on the White House lawn, as it had been in the past. Simon was inspired: "I thought, this is an idea that deserves a grassroots movement. Alice Waters is someone who deserves to have her dreams come true."

Before setting off on their journey the pair contacted Waters, who blessed the venture. They set up a platform bed in the back of the bus, decked the ceiling with American flags and stocked the "kitchen" shelves with spices, oil, grains and ready-made soup. They planted herbs and root crops in lightweight soil on the roof, and on Aug. 4 they set off from New York to San Francisco. They had three weeks to make it to Slow Food Nation, the country's largest food festival, held on Labor Day weekend.

There, Simon and Gustowarow parked the bus alongside the "victory garden" planted in front of San Francisco's City Hall, where they solicited signatures from thousands of like-minded food lovers. Pollan came aboard the bus for a chat. The pair even drove to Berkeley for lunch with Waters at Chez Panisse. They don't remember what they ate; "she picked the menu," Gustowarow says.

From there, they traveled organically across the South. Simon says they set their sights on places "where we would be preaching to the choir, then seeing where the choir led us." They visited schools in Oakland and Berkeley. In Arizona, they stopped in Flagstaff and Sedona, where they drove out to Republican presidential nominee John McCain's ranch, only to be shooed away by the Secret Service.

In Lubbock, Texas, they hooked up with cheesemaker Nancy Patton of Haute Goat Creamery. "I was having drinks with my father at the retirement village when the phone rang, and this kid told me he was driving across the country in an upside-down school bus. The first thing I'm thinking is, 'How did you get my number?' "

Patton, a self-described conservative Republican, was impressed, however. "I thought it was a different stop for someone to pitch a cause like that. We're pretty cowboy here," she says. Patton put out a local press release and booked Simon and Gustowarow on the local Fox morning news program. Then she called a friend and asked him to design some T-shirts for them.

"My approach is a little different than theirs," she says. "But I just appreciate what they are doing. My question is: Who would be against this?"

Good question. There is a history of agriculture at the White House. Its first tenant, John Adams, planted a garden shortly after taking up residence in 1800. Woodrow Wilson brought in sheep to mow and fertilize the White House lawn in 1918, an effort to conserve resources for the war effort. In 1943, over the objection of the Agriculture Department, Eleanor Roosevelt planted a victory garden, inspiring millions of Americans to grow their own food.

Since then, however, only herbs have been grown at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Jimmy Carter, a Georgia farmer who extolled the virtues of gardening during his campaign, declined calls in 1978 to plant a vegetable garden at the White House. The issue has not been raised again seriously until now.

The WHO Farm petition goes further than other similar calls to action. Simon and Gustowarow want schoolchildren and disabled Americans to work in the White House garden, a request that might pose a tricky security challenge. (Simon says including more participants in the project will make it more viable.) They also ask, among other things, that the gardeners plant heirloom seeds and use compost made from food waste from the kitchens that serve the White House, congressional buildings and Supreme Court.

He and Gustowarow plan to upload their petition to http://www.change.gov, the Obama-Biden transition Web site, before the inauguration, then send it to the White House by mail. (The petition will remain open, Simon says, until there is a garden on the White House lawn. It can be signed at http://www.thewhofarm.org.)

In the new year, Gustowarow is hoping to find a piece of land to farm. Simon will continue on his quest. "I'm not terribly optimistic this will happen the day [the Obamas] move into the White House," Simon says. "I think we've planted a seed -- no pun intended -- that opens up the possibility."

Coming tomorrow: Adrian Higgins contemplates what a White House vegetable garden might entail, in the Home section.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company