Thursday, August 13, 2009

White House Releases New Lead Test Results For Kitchen Garden; Level Is Even Lower Than Before

Soil amendments make Kitchen Garden even safer, and there's new information about sludge application on the White House lawns...
The latest soil test results from the White House Kitchen Garden show an even lower lead level than previously recorded, according to White House assistant chef and Food Initiative Coordinator Sam Kass, who is in charge of First Lady Michelle Obama's garden. The most recent test results show a lead level of 14 PPM, down from 93 PPM, the number released by the National Park Service when ground was originally broken for the garden. The East Wing statement about the garden also re-iterated a fact that's frequently mis-reported in media: The Kitchen Garden is not certified organic. No chemical/synthetic pesticides or fertilizers are used in the garden, but it is not certified organic, a three-year process under USDA guidelines. (Above: Kass with Bancroft Elementary School kids, during the Garden Harvest event in June)

According to Mr. Kass, the new lower test result is due to the addition of soil amendments to the garden, which served to boost the nutritional quality of the soil, as well as achieve a pH level of 6.5 (also noted in the current test results). The soil amendments included tilling in lime, green sand and crabmeal, as well as compost made of locally sourced organic materials, supplied by the National Park Service, which is responsible for maintaining the grounds of the White House campus. A pH level of 6.5 dramatically reduces the bioavailability of any lead that might be present in soil, and makes it highly unlikely for lead to be absorbed into crop fruits and tissues. Soil experts and state and federal agricultural extension guidelines for planting food crops all maintain that planting in soil that has a lead level of 300-400 PPM is generally considered safe, but the lower the lead level, the better, obviously. A lead level of 14 PPM is well below what is considered harmful, even by the most cautious standards. (Above: Kass, out of his chef whites, showing visitors around the garden)

Sludge applied only once, in 1985
Also going on the record now with information: White House groundskeeper Irvin Williams, who retired last year after 59 years of service. Mr. Williams said that sludge was only applied--
a single time--to White House lawns in 1985. Mr. Williams is the individual with the longest institutional memory for White House grounds keeping practices, and the final authority on the subject.

The White House has released the new test results in an effort to finally quell the internet mania--complete with various conspiracy theories--which has claimed that the garden is profoundly contaminated with toxins left over from the repeated application of sewage sludge to the lawns of the White House campus. Mother Jones magazine started this toxic campaign, which been spreading like--well, sludge--across the internet, leading to headlines such as "Michelle Obama's Garden is Poisoning Foreign Dignitaries and Small Children." The idea of the White House Kitchen Garden as profoundly contaminated has persisted, despite being debunked by your intrepid blogger here on Ob Fo and on the Huffington Post, as writers who don't fact check--and have little understanding of the issues of either lead contamination, or gardening--have insisted on referencing the original Mother Jones story.

Grandma's not getting unplugged, and Grandma's not getting ill from the White House Kitchen Garden...
It's interesting to note that the misinformation about the White House Kitchen Garden in the internet food/Ag world has approached the level of misinformation that's being promulgated about President Obama's plans to reform health care. Under the President's plan, Grandma's not having the plug pulled on her, and with the garden, Grandma's also not getting ill from eating White House veggies. It's also culturally curious to note that while health care misinfo is emerging from the Right, White House Kitchen Garden mania has emerged from the Left, from environmental and greeny food bloggers who should know better. But in both cases, it's a complete lack of fact checking, as well as rumor mongering.

Many other bloggers and writers have debunked the contamination myth, most recently Baltimore Sun's Susan Reimer, in Michelle's Garden Enters The Ranks of Voo Doo History, a funny and erudite editorial, which compared the persistent WH contamo theories to the idea that the Kennedys were responsible for Marilyn Monroe's death, and the notion that the Apollo 11 moonwalk was faked, among other enduring conspiracy fabrications. But the myth has persisted, just as lead persists in environments long after its original source has been removed. Retired groundskeeper Williams' announcement that sludge was only applied to White House grounds a single time is also profoundly different than what Mother Jones and others claim--which is that there were repeated applications of sewage sludge. No. Former President Bill Clinton and current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have been repeatedly slandered, too, during the Kitchen Garden bashing; they've been accused of "poisoning" the White House grounds with sewage sludge. Clearly false. In fact, it was then-President Clinton who began the ongoing efforts to de-toxify government landscaping practices; while president, he issued a directive to government agencies to explore environmentally friendly landscaping initiatives.

Lead is an ongoing issue in all gardens and in our modern environment in general, and dealing with it is a sad fact of living in an industrialized society. Soil should always be tested for the presence of heavy metals and other contaminants before planting food crops, but happily these tests are now widely available, as is expert guidance. There's help available for gardeners, through state and local agricultural extension services, or, as Ob Fo noted in this post, you can get personal advice on your own garden project through the Extension Master Gardeners program, which is available in all 50 states and DC, and was created to connect new gardeners with those who are experienced, and to provide the kind of guidance that's needed to ensure that your garden is safe. And as also noted in this Ob Fo interview with soil scientists, who discussed garden and lead issues--one positive outcome of all the Kitchen Garden mania is that it reminds us that we live in a toxic world in general, and this must be considered after any outdoor activity, including gardening. Thorough hand washing and scrupulous personal hygiene should be observed in order to remove any environmental toxins, whether gardening, tree climbing, or playing baseball....

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has declared August 23-29 as National Community Gardening Week, and it's swell that so many new gardens are being both planted and encouraged by the Obama administration. Knowing exactly what's in your garden--and dealing with it--is just another vital element of achieving food literacy.