On Oct. 5, 2016, when Michelle Obama hosted her final harvest in the White House kitchen garden, she unveiled a pointed horticultural statement: Stones lay where mulch pathways had been. A central path of cement and more stone led to a wood-and-steel arbor straddling a bluestone slab that read: “WHITE HOUSE KITCHEN GARDEN — established 2009 by First Lady Michelle Obama with the hope of growing a healthier nation for our children.” From a podium, she told a crowd of children, reporters and Sesame Street characters: “I am hopeful that future first families will cherish this garden like we have.”
Given the results of the presidential election one month later, the first lady’s steel and stone reinforcements seemed wise. Right-wing partisans gleefully anticipated President Trump erasing everything “Obama” from the White House. Two days after the election, Ann Coulter tweeted: “I respectfully suggest a new name for Michelle’s White House vegetable garden: ‘Putting green.’ ”
Although it may seem a garden-variety partisan spat, the fight for the future of these vegetables has deep roots in agricultural and public-health issues that are fiercely contested and raise charges of elitism on one side and protecting big business at the expense of children’s health on the other. That makes the garden a political football — one with symbolic meaning about the future of farming and nutrition policy in America.
Before the Obamas, the last time the presidential lawn nourished vegetables was World War II, when Eleanor Roosevelt planted a Victory Garden as part of the movement to increase the national food supply. With more mothers working and unable to provide lunch at home, many schools also grew victory gardens to supply midday meals, sometimes augmented with food from the Agriculture Department’s Surplus Marketing Administration. Schools without such help relied on gardens even more.
In Los Angeles in 1942, gardens provided 60 percent of the vegetables and 50 percent of the poultry products for school cafeterias across the city. This feat required the hard labor of more than 77,000 students, not just on school campuses but also on newly plowed vacant lots across the city. Such programs were widely praised but did not survive the war.
Come 1945, most Americans considered school lunches a necessity that the federal government should sponsor. At the same time, farmers feared postwar price collapses and didn’t want additional competition. So rather than encourage gardens and local provisioning, the 1946 National School Lunch Act authorized the USDA to provide school lunches, buying excess crops and offloading them onto lunch trays to help stabilize farm prices.
The bill inaugurated a politically savvy fusion between social welfare policy and agricultural policy in the realm of school lunches: Every child eating a school lunch meant more income and a stable living for commodity farmers.
Through the rest of the 20th century, farm bills relied on bipartisan support, generated by packaging together farming subsidies, which conservatives from rural places liked, and welfare measures such as school lunch programs and the food stamp program, which urban-based liberals favored. As a result, children ate not what they needed, but what the largest farmers grew the most of: lots of grains, beef, processed corn products and few vegetables.
This bipartisan recipe for successfully passing farm and social welfare legislation was also a recipe for expanding waistlines and chronic malnutrition in children. By 2009, the obesity epidemic was drawing fresh attention to childhood nutrition. Michelle Obama, although she had no experience gardening, wanted to use the garden to make a statement about this crisis. In her 2012 book about the garden, American Grown, she explained, “I hoped this garden would help begin a conversation […] about the food we eat, the lives we lead, and how all of that affects our children.”
But her seemingly reasonable effort to start a conversation about childhood nutrition sparked a political firestorm. Conservative media launched an immediate attack, focusing on well-trod partisan claims of elitism. The decision to keep the garden free of pesticides and other chemicals sparked particular outrage, perceived as a slight to American farmers, and therefore the entirety of middle America. The Mid America CropLife Association, a representative of companies such as DuPont Crop Protection, Monsanto and Dow AgroSciences, sent a letter of protest to the White House within a week of the garden’s opening.
After Michelle Obama’s garden-based vision helped drive the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA), outrage from supporters of conventional food systems peaked again. The act mandated comprehensive nutrition standards for school meals and encouraged school gardens under farm-to-school initiatives. Initial bipartisan support for the bill’s passage evaporated as implementation loomed. Early opponents such as food processors and the American Farm Bureau were later joined by the far-right House Freedom Caucus, which ranked HHFKA first on a December 2016 list of legislation to revoke or reform.
Conservative critics derided how they said HHFKA increased government intervention in local affairs, burdened schools with red tape and demanded compliance with unworkable regulations. Pundits railed against it for expanding the sphere of the nanny state and usurping parental authority over children’s diets.
But this rhetoric often obscured the true issue: The bill threatened the financial well being of traditional agriculture. In 2009, the American Farm Bureau spent $5.1 million lobbying against the Food Safety Enhancement Act, an early forerunner of the HHFKA. Agribusinesses have fiercely lobbied against the HHFKA and employed food processors and elected officials as proxies. In 2011, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), backed by the potato lobby, successfully fought back against the Institute of Medicine’s proposed restrictions on potatoes in school meals, clearing the way for daily “vegetable” sides of french fries.
In tandem with growing opposition to the HHFKA, congressional consensus on farm policy faltered under public anxieties over corporate agriculture’s impact on public health and the environment. The 2008 Farm Bill had been expired for two years by the time Congress passed the Agricultural Act of 2014. The final budget allocated 79.1 percent of funds to nutrition programs, wherein school lunch funding is second only to SNAP (food stamps). That law expires in September 2018, with no replacement in sight.
In this environment of uncertainty and competing priorities, the White House garden takes on newfound political symbolism. If Melania Trump continues the planting and harvest activities of Michelle Obama, she will be signaling support for organic agriculture, local food and school nutrition, all causes that ultimately demand radical revisions to American farm policy. To come out with sprayers of Sevin at hand before planting Roundup-Ready GMO corn, by contrast, would thrill President Trump’s far-right voting base and entrenched Republican agricultural interests, but would infuriate champions of improved nutrition and organic agriculture. To abandon the garden altogether would be interpreted as wanton disregard for children’s health on the part of the first lady: political suicide.
Thus far, the Trump administration has erred on the side of silence regarding the vegetable garden, mirroring the silence in Congress around the impending farm bill deadline. In February 2017, a news release from the Office of the First Lady confirmed the White House vegetable garden would not be removed. Come April, however, there was no spring planting event such as Michelle Obama had held; instead, the secretary of agriculture announced that he would “Make School Lunches Great Again” by relaxing Obama-era HHFKA nutrition and sourcing regulations. Public tours of the garden continued last summer, but the White House occupants kept their distance both legislatively and physically from local food production and childhood nutrition efforts.
Melania Trump finally made her first appearance in the garden on Sept. 22. (The Internet was quick to note that her ostensibly modest flannel shirt cost $1,380.) While the first lady harvested the turnips and kale she had declined to help plant, she encouraged children to “continue to eat a lot of vegetables and fruits, so you grow up healthy and take care of yourself,” while avoiding calls for structural change. Exactly a week later, however, the Trump administration pushed back deadlines for updating nutrition labels on packaged foods, which would have mandated disclosure of added sugars, the most common of which is high-fructose corn syrup, second only to ethanol and animal feed in importance to the U.S. corn industry.
This spring, planting dates have come and gone; visitors are invited to tour gardens again planted by Park Service staff. But it seems clear that by reducing their involvement, the Trumps are trying to erode the symbolism of the garden to placate their agribusiness allies. If those priorities carry over to a draft of a new farm bill, they will doom us to another round of partisan warfare.