Roger Doiron of Kitchen Gardeners International thinks we should be digging up the White House lawn for more utilitarian purposes.
It's an election year and there are many hot topics on people's minds. With the economy tanking, fuel prices high, food prices soaring, and concerns about global warming, health care, social security, and education ever present, many people feel helpless to act. Well, Roger Doiron of Kitchen Gardens International has one small solution that just might help everyone feel a little better and start us on the road to making a positive step towards recovery.
Kitchens Gardeners International (KGI) is a nonprofit organization that encourages people to grow and cook more of their own vegetables, fruits, and herbs. For five years Roger has seen the interest and participation in his group and Web site grow. I chatted with Roger about Kitchen Gardeners International and his petition to have the next president build a kitchen garden at the White House.
Q: Roger, tell me how you came up with the idea to start a nonprofit to promote kitchen gardening?
My first exposure to edible gardening was growing up in Maine with my parents growing tomatoes and cucumbers in our home garden. I really didn't think much more about kitchen gardening again until I moved to Belgium. I lived there for 10 years working for the Friends of the Earth on food and sustainable agriculture issues. During the week I was exposed to the complex issues of food systems, agriculture, and hunger. On weekends I would go into the Belgium countryside to my in-laws' house. They are big vegetable gardeners and love to cook. I got to witness their close relationship to food and started to think that if more people had this same relationship and grew some of their own food, issues such as sustainable agriculture and hunger would become more meaningful to them.
When I returned to Maine I wanted to continue working on these issues by promoting kitchen gardening. I wanted to make it practical. That's how I came up with KGI. I use this organization to educate and encourage people to grow their own gardens and cook their own food as a way to a better life and world.
The White House grounds have historically been more than just lawn. In 1918 to President Woodrow Wilson raised sheep on the grounds. The White House actually turned a profit from the wool and donated the money to the Red Cross.
Q: How is the European view of kitchen gardening different from the American view?
One of the basic differences I see between American and European values regarding growing and eating our own food is in Europe if you have the land, time, and resources to grow a vegetable garden, you just do it. It's a no-brainer. Europeans also put more time, energy, and money into cooking their own food. Americans, in general, don't bother going to the trouble of edible gardening or cooking from scratch mostly because food is cheap and readily accessible. I believe we've also lost many of the skills, culture, and appreciation for growing our own food. So that makes groups such as KGI and National Gardening Association so important in keeping these skills alive for future generations of gardeners.
Also, Europeans plant the vegetable garden where it will grow best. Often the best sun, soil, and exposure for the garden is in the front yard. It's okay to grow vegetables there. In the United States, people have the attitude of hiding the vegetable garden behind the house. It's almost like they are embarrassed by it. There are also ordinances in many communities restricting edible gardens in the front yard.
Q: Tell me about the Eat the View campaign?
Last winter I was trying to think of some symbolic way to inspire people to grow more of their own food. I had this vague notion in my head that at one time the White House had edible gardens. So I floated the idea about petitioning the next president to grow a kitchen garden at the White House on a Web site collecting suggestions for the new president. Amazingly it gained traction and became the most popular idea on the Web site. I think the simplicity of the idea appealed to many people. It sounds like a doable project and has tangible results. The symbolism is obvious. A kitchen garden on the most emblematic piece of landscape in the country would symbolize this president's commitment to local foods, sustainable agriculture, healthy eating, and environmental activism on issues such as global warming.
Starting your own kitchen garden is as easy as digging up the front lawn. Start small, grow what you like to eat, and stay on top of the maintenance.
Q: Edible gardens at the White House are not without precedent?
Right. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson had kitchen gardens at the White House. In those days it wasn't just a matter of symbolism. The president was personally responsible for the economics of running of the White House, just like you and I are responsible for our own homes. So, planting kitchen gardens to grow food for the staff and first family was a financial necessity.
But the image that really got me thinking about bringing this idea back was one of sheep grazing on the White House lawn in 1918. Woodrow Wilson had a flock there to save money on lawn trimming and raised some animals for wool. I hear they actually turned a profit when they sold the wool, and donated the money to the Red Cross. Of course, many are familiar, too, with Eleanor Roosevelt's Victory Garden at the White House in the 1940's to help the war effort. So in times of crisis we have turned to the basics of growing some of our own food and the White House can be one of the symbols of that movement.
Already, city halls and governor residences in San Francisco, New York, and Maine have caught on to this idea and are growing food gardens on their grounds.
Roger would like the next president to embrace local agriculture and fresh food by planting a kitchen garden at the White House.
Q: So what can a home gardener do to help get more people into kitchen gardening?
First of all, be a good example and start a garden at your home. It doesn't have to be large or grow lots of food. Just get started and see the benefits for yourself. Not only will you enjoy the fresh produce, get some exercise, have more family and neighborhood time, and relax more, you'll save money. I spent $85 dollars this spring and my family of four has been eating from the garden for the past six months.
Then visit the Eat the View Web site and sign the petition asking the next president to grow a kitchen garden at the White House. I hope to have more than 10,000 people signed up by the end of 2008. To get the next president's attention this has to be a grassroots movement. I want to get enough signatures so the president can't ignore it. The White House has 13 full time gardeners and plenty of lawn so it wouldn't be a financial burden on the government. Just think about the food they could grow to entertain heads of state from other countries and donate the excess to the local food pantries. This simple act would say more about the president's priorities and policies than any speech on agriculture, hunger, and food systems that he could make.
To find out more about the Eat the View movement, the petition, and Kitchen Gardeners International, go to Roger's Kitchen Gardeners International Web site.