Monday, August 03, 2009

Paradigm Shift at The White House: The First Lady's Food Agenda At 200 Days

An unprecedented East Wing focus on food issues is accompanied by pushback from the volatile Leadites, Mrs. Obama's own version of the Birthers. It's not going to stop the paradigm shift in food issues that has the White House Kitchen Garden at its root...
Later this week, we mark President Obama's 200th day in office, and there's been big movement for all kinds of food and agriculture issues within the administration. But perhaps the biggest shift in food policy is what's gone on in the East Wing of the White House, because although First Lady Michelle Obama's White House Kitchen Garden is just 136 days old, it's one of the most critical projects that's occurred.

On May 5, during a visit with DC school kids, Mrs. Obama was asked by one of the kids what had surprised her most about moving into the White House. The First Lady responded that she was thrilled to discover that "I can plant a garden, something as small as planting a garden, and the whole world will pay attention." Mrs. Obama was absolutely right; but in that moment no one really understood how very much attention the garden was going to receive. The White House Kitchen Garden was the beginning of an unprecedented paradigm shift in our national conversation on children's nutrition and health, on food and agriculture, on the role of cooking and nutrition education; and it's a signpost for the Obama administration's approach to these issues. Never before have we had a First Lady with a food policy agenda, and never before have we had an assistant White House chef--Food Initiative Coordinator Sam Kass--who has assumed a public role in nutrition and health education, and in creating that food policy agenda. And never before have we had a First Lady who actually has a "food policy team." (Above: Sam Kass)

In less than 200 days, the garden has not only been a wonderful, bounteous source of fresh produce for the White House kitchen--and for Miriam's Kitchen, a DC soup kitchen--but it really has become a national--and international-- "teachable moment." Mrs. Obama has been credited with inspiring every kind of edible garden here in America, from home to urban to school to Senior to hospital gardens, as well as Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack's People's Garden. The First Lady is being credited with a boost to seed sales and garden tools; she's even being credited with a growing national movement in canning. The First Lady is also credited with inspiring a bevy of State First Ladies to plant edible gardens, as well as inspiring some very high profile gardeners abroad--such as HRH Queen Elizabeth II, and most recently, Sarah Brown, wife of Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Prince Charles wanted to discuss the White House Kitchen Garden when Mrs. Obama first visited the UK, and during Mrs. Obama's recent visit to Russia, the citizenry were far more interested in her role as Gardener In Chief than they were in her latest outfit. And this summer, Mrs. Obama has been the lovely public face of United We Serve, which has community garden projects--and food bank assistance--as part of the Summer of Service initiatives.

The remarks Mrs. Obama has made with the garden as a backdrop--in critical speeches in which she discussed the relationship between health care reform, reducing chronic diseases from obesity, the role of processed and fast foods, the need for better nutrition and health for children of all races and economic levels--have expanded our national conversations on the subject, which were started by the seemingly simple act of planting the garden. The First Lady's remarks have been bolstered by interviews given to the media, too, and these new conversations about health and nutrition and the way we eat are now occurring across the board, among private citizens, among community groups, among policy makers, and all over the media. The President, too, has weighed in on the need for changes in our eating habits, and for food policy reform.

The Paradigm Shift Expands
Equally import
ant, the paradigm shift started by the planting of the garden has expanded, as Mrs. Obama and Kass, along with the rest of the East Wing food policy team, including senior advisers Melody Barnes and Jocelyn Frye, have built out the agenda to include the vitally important role of teaching cooking to children and their parents, to promote nutrition awareness and help create lifestyle balance. Mrs. Obama's food policy team has also been working with other top-level Administration officials to deal with food issues for military families, and focusing on the upcoming reauthorization of the Federal child nutrition programs. The garden has been the most visible part of this wide-ranging food policy platform; much of what has gone on with the First Lady's food agenda occurs in closed meetings, although the press does receive alerts. And more interviews are being given about what goes on, as the food policy develops.

The Garden Harvest Picnic, when Mrs. Obama, Ka
ss, and the Bancroft Elementary School kids harvested a huge amount of crops from the garden, then cooked a celebratory meal with the crops, was actually the third part of the cooking is critical project, which will become a far larger part of the First Lady's nutrition and health platform over the next 100 days (as early as February 23, a month before the garden was planted, Mrs. Obama already had culinary students in the White House kitchen; and at the Easter Egg Roll, thousands of kids and parents watched the White House chefs--and a bevy of high profile celeb guest chefs--give cooking demonstrations). The White House is well aware of the many different studies that have identified a relationship between cooking at home and lower rates of obesity (such as this one), of the relationship of academic achievement to better nutrition, of the relationship of food access to better health for all, and all the different ways these issues need to be addressed, on a federal level, on a community level, on a personal level. This summer, child volunteers and visitors, other than the Bancroft kids, have continued to fill the White House, to cook in the kitchen and work in the garden and learn about health and nutrition. Just last week, Kass met with children at DC's Key Academy for a summer program that covered this same ground (in photo, above). Kass is also working on a recipe project to further solidify this part of the paradigm shift. Last Friday, Mrs. Obama suggested cooking dinner as a way of showing community support for military families. Food and food policy, nutrition and health are being highlighted in an interconnected, cross-platform way, in many of the public appearances the First Lady makes. It's a dramatic paradigm shift, and it's stunning.

The Garden as Cultural Touchstone

Naturally, because the White House Kitchen Garden is the part of the First Lady's food policy agenda th
at's the most visible, it's gotten the most attention in the culture and in the media. Whether referenced in a positive or negative way, the garden seems to be a daily object of fascination. There are so many stories in the media, now, unrelated to facts about the White House Kitchen Garden--that it's difficult to track. For instance, at the Boston Globe, a story in the travel section about following the rich history of rice cultivation in South Carolina "naturally" mentions Mrs. Obama, and her garden. Bloomberg recently suggested everyone visit New York Botanical Garden's edible project, just because the First Lady has imbued gardening with patriotism--not because the project was inspired by Mrs. Obama. Over at The Atlantic, the garden was the opening salvo in a story about the passage of last week's House food safety bill...even though the two have absolutely nothing to do with each other. And in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, a story about a garden planted in the back of a flat bed truck opens with a reference to Mrs. Obama's garden--even though the two have absolutely nothing to do with each other: "Michelle Obama may have a garden on the White House lawn, but film makers Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney of Brooklyn have a garden in their truck."

The fact that the garden is now a touchstone in the culture, a magical object that's a point of universal reference, speaks to our need for change, and to our readiness for a new paradigm. But at the same time, the garden has also become the subject of negative fascination. There's that relentless myth of lead contamination in the garden, which like a fungus refuses to die, and which is newly coursing around the internets.

The President Has Birthers; The First Lady Has Leadites Who Play Toxic Telephone. The White House Responds Again....
In the last two weeks, the lead myth has returned with a vengeance,
in stories with inflammatory headlines such as Michelle Obama's Toxic Veggie Nightmare. This, despite the fact that lead as a toxic issue in the garden has been debunked by major soil scientists, in interviews with your intrepid blogger that appeared here and on Huffington Post. We apparently live in a world that's devoid of fact checkers, because everyone who's newly writing about the "lead threat" is referencing the non-fact checked June 17 Mother Jones story about "sewage sludge lacing the White House veggie garden," which started the leadstravaganza (and these stories are appearing internationally, too; for instance in the UK's The Guardian). Mother Jones didn't check their facts about what lead levels actually mean in food gardens, and they didn't check their facts about when sewage sludge--in the form of fertilizer--may have been spread on the White House lawn (their dates are wrong, as is their assertion about the practice). And despite talking to one of the same soil scientists that Ob Fo interviewed to debunk the toxic myth, Mother Jones refused to correct their story. But why bother to correct the record? It's not as if Mother Jones is engaged in a project of journalism, or interested in facts. The new wave of Leadites are also referencing Andrew Kimbrell's Huffington Post nonsense, which also referenced the same Mother Jones piece--after the Mother Jones piece had already been debunked. It's all an extraordinary case of toxic internet telephone.

Jeff Stier is the individual who kicked off this new, latest wave of idiocy, on July 23, with Is the White House Organic Garden Toxic to Kids?, which appeared on the Forbes website. Stier is the same fellow who was very publicly and hilariously smacked down on Jon Stewart's Daily Show when he tried to claim that the White House Kitchen Garden was a public health hazard, "falling somewhere on the threat scale between five-year-olds who smoke and fourteen-year-olds who have unprotected anal sex" (no, not making that up). Stier emerged from the Daily Show video outing looking like a jerk, but that hasn't stopped him from getting in on the gardening action some more. In his latest piece in Forbes, Stier points to the fictional lead contamination of the garden to try to make a case for industrial chemicals such as Bisphenol A and pthalates, because the world is already polluted. Nope, not making that one up, either.

It's interesting to note that a lot of the yelling about the White House Kitchen Garden being contaminated is coming from people who should ostensibly be thrilled that the White House has such a high profile edible garden--people who claim an interest in sustainable agriculture, smaller and family farming, in children's nutrition and school lunches, in agroecology, in healthy eating and growing your own, etc. Greeny sites like Treehugger and Ecorazzi are going at the garden bashing. In this second round of lead myth stories, once again it's the same kind of people who are busily promoting the contamination myth the most, and who are the most invested in ignoring the facts about what lead levels actually mean, in the context of food gardening. And of course it's all tied in with self-promotion, too, or promoting one's own agenda; Andrew Kimbrell is the most high-profile of these culprits, but there are lots of people like this fellow yelling about lead, because he's trying to sell his own organic compost product. Nice. But the glee from the Leftist Foodies, masquerading as pity for the First Lady's "ruined" garden, is disconcerting: When First Lady Michelle Obama planted an organic vegetable garden on the White House lawn....she hoped to...set an example of healthy eating...But Michelle's organic dream has been dashed by a nasty toxic legacy lurking in the soils....

Meantime, the White House has newly issued a statement about lead in the garden, again. Semonti Mustaphi, one of the spokespeople for the First Lady, just e-mailed Lynn Sweet, Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times, with more reassurance that the White House Kitchen Garden is not producing toxic crops, and is not poisoning those who either work in the garden or eat from it. Happily, Ms. Sweet's post about this e mail is headlined White House Kitchen Garden is Completely Safe, and it's up today on AOL. This will go a long way towards further debunking the toxic myth. Unfortunately, the myth isn't going to vanish. Right now, lead in the Kitchen Garden is the equivalent of the Birthers issue for Mrs. Obama. The President's American birth has been verified again and again, but the Birthers won't believe it. The Leadites won't believe anything that's said about the garden, either.

The Happy New
With any paradig
m shift, there's always pushback. There's always a period in time as the culture assimilates new information, and gets used to big change, when there's much opposition. In the first 200 days of the Obama era, we've gone through some massive upheavals, and the Birther movement is symbolic of an entrenched opposition that's looking for anything to undermine forward movement. The same thing is clearly going on with the First Lady's food agenda, though on a far more smaller scale. But the President's going to continue to be the President, no matter what the Birthers say, and Mrs. Obama's going to continue to garden, and to further shift our paradigm on food and nutrition and health consciousness, no matter what the Leadites say. The Birthers and the Leadites may well be around as background noise for the rest of the Obama Era, but neither will stop the forward movement. They'll be annoying interstices, and make for excellent inflammatory headlines...but at the end of the day, both are ineffective. We're in a transformative moment across the culture, and no amount of crazy yelling is going to change that. The paradigm shifts can't be undone, whether it's health care reform or changes in our national approach to food and nutrition. (Above: Mrs. Obama and Kass help the Bancroft kids with their own school garden)

*Photos: Mrs. Obama photos by Smantha Appleton/White House; Sam Kass photo by Obama Foodorama; Kass at Key event courtesy of Mimeo