During World War I President Woodrow Wilson asked Americans to plant vegetable gardens “to ward off the possible threat of food shortages.” By 1943, victory gardens supplied an amazing 40 percent of the produce in America. You can see the proof in this photo showing hundreds of public gardens in New York. Growing vegetables united the country.
One hundred years later…
Michelle Obama courageously dug up part of the White House lawn. Why? To unite us against a real threat: A childhood obesity epidemic. When I downloaded the Audible version of her book Becoming (which she reads, by the way), I was interested mostly in her stories about gardening. I finished it with a greater appreciation for this First Lady. And I also came away with greater concern for the physical health of Americans.
You’ll see what I mean…
Dear readers: This article first appeared as my weekly garden column in the Kodiak Daily Mirror
Every solution starts as a seed
In 2009, when Barack Obama took office as the 44th President, nearly one-third of American children were overweight or obese. Kids were being diagnosed at record rates with high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes, a disease that was unheard of when I was growing up in the 50s and 60s.
Over the previous 30 years, rates of childhood obesity had tripled. Now obesity shows up in all walks of American life. Even military leaders, she says, were reporting that obesity was one of the most common disqualifiers for service.
You might wonder why Michelle Obama took on gardening as her first real effort as First Lady, especially since she had never sowed a radish seed in her life…
Cauliflower mac and cheese: Yum!
“I didn’t want to be some sort of well-dressed ornament who showed up at parties and ribbon cuttings,” she said. “I wanted to do things that were purposeful and lasting.”
Her family learned how to eat better at home and later at the White House. “I now knew that strawberries were their most succulent in June, that darker-leafed lettuces had the most nutrients, and that it wasn’t so hard to make kale chips in the oven.”
Personal note: When my husband had a mini-stroke in 2016, we shifted, lock, stock, and barrel to a plant-based diet. I had to learn how to cook all over again. But we’ve never turned back…
Michelle was pleased to see their two daughters eating things like spring pea salad and cauliflower mac and cheese.
But outside their home…
“…Most of what we knew about food,” she said, “had come through food industry advertising on everything boxed, frozen or otherwise processed for convenience, whether it was in snap-crackle TV jingles or clever packaging aimed at the harried parent dashing through the grocery store.
What’s wrong with the standard American diet (SAD)?
Watch this video and share it! In 2010, the USDA officially revised the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, which raises the question: how have we been doing with the old guidelines?
“Nobody, really, was out there advertising fresh, healthy stuff–the gratifying crunch of a fresh carrot or the unparalleled sweetness of a tomato plucked right off the vine.”
Oh, hey! Let’s start a revolution: Advertise homegrown tomatoes during Saturday morning cartoons!
The garden as a poster child
By planting a garden at the White House, Michelle hoped it would signal the start of something bigger as her husband focused on improving access to affordable health care. The garden represented a way to offer a parallel message about healthy living.
Eating a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables is a big priority for my family. We would rather maintain health rather than chase health. That is why we garden, well that and it tastes amazing too.
— Heather Johnson, Kodiak, Alaska gardener
In speaking on these topics from the White House, Michelle sent a clear challenge to the giant corporations in the food and beverage industry. You can send clear messages, too by voting with your dollars and writing to your Congressmen.
You can’t make decisions based on fear and the possibility of what might happen.
— Michelle Obama
A garden for everyone to see
It had been decades since a White House Victory Garden had been planted, on Eleanor Roosevelt’s watch. So it took some convincing on Michell’s part. Eventually, she and her staff secured an L-shaped, 1,100 square foot plot on the South Lawn. In plain view of tourists. Elementary students were often seen digging in the dirt and playing with plants.
Like every beginner gardener, Michelle was a little anxious. “Because with a garden you never know for sure what will or won’t happen–whether anything, in fact, will grow.”
On the first day of planting, Michelle knelt with a bunch of fifth graders as they carefully transplanted seedlings into the ground, patting the dirt into place around the fragile stalks.
Kids made me feel like myself again
“I loved being with children. It was and would be throughout the entirety of my time in the White House, a balm for my spirit, a way to momentarily escape my First Lady worries, my self-consciousness about constantly being judged. Kids made me feel like myself again.”
They planted lettuce, spinach, fennel, and broccoli; carrot seeds and collard greens; onions and peas. “I didn’t know, the same way I didn’t know what lay ahead for us in the White House, nor what lay ahead for the country or for any of these sweet children surrounding me.
“All we could do then was put our faith into the effort, trusting that with sure and rain and time, something half-decent would push up through the dirt.”
Like Michelle says, “You can’t make decisions based on fear and the possibility of what might happen.”
If she was sitting in my motorhome in Arizona, where I’m sitting right now, I’d give her a big, gardener to gardener, hug.
Thanks for being here, dear readers.
P.S. Please share this blog post with your friends and family. It might be the best gift ever!
Related blog posts and other resources:
Want a dream garden? How to order seeds the easy way
Plant-Based Primer: The Beginner’s Guide to Starting a Plant-Based Diet
Did you know that food waste is a HUGE problem? Here’s how you can fix it in your own kitchen, plus a wonderful video about the life of a strawberry.
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Marion Owen is a “Jill of all trades,” with 30 years of experience as a teacher and columnist. She’s on a mission to help busy people enhance their daily lives, condensing topics such as photography, cooking, and organic gardening into bite-size pieces. Get her free 4-page “In Good Light: Photo Tips for Busy People” and feel newly recharged when taking pictures.
marionowenMarch 19, 2019 at 9:22 PM
Oh, Kim… what a great idea to think of Michelle while planting the garden. She has such a lovely voice… I’m so happy I chose to listen to her book.
Candice FalatkoMarch 19, 2019 at 11:00 PM
Marion, Thank you so much for this. I am about to plant about the 50th garden of my life…one of my biggest joys in life. I would probably not have read this book, but I will now and intend to make it my first audio.
Catherine PraiswaterMarch 19, 2019 at 5:32 PM
Wow. You put so much thought into this blog. I started the book but got busy. Now I’m even more inspired to finish it and to get my yard ready for gardening.
marionowenMarch 19, 2019 at 9:25 PM
You’ve had a cool couple months… you’re a brave girl to grow in ALBQ. Keep me posted on the garden progress.
Kim McKennaMarch 19, 2019 at 4:31 PM
I recently read ‘Becoming’ also and LOVED it! Michelle Obama is thoughtful, down to earth and inspiring. I’ll think of her (and you) as I plant my annual garden this year!