The political garden revisited

The political garden is not a new thing. If you look back to the history of Victory Garden’s during wartime, food production has always played a role in our political system. The political garden is being revisited once again, as rising rates of obesity, diabetes and health care costs are once again forcing some of us to examine how we eat and where our food comes from.
Climate change is also pushing this conversation, as concerns about the impact of industrial food systems on the environment (from waste generated by CAFOs to gas used to ship food around the world) are brought up. For a great quick and dirty overview of the high cost of cheap food read this Time Magazine article.
The following video from the White House tells the story of Michelle Obama’s White House garden project, the first in over 100 years to actually produce a large quantity of food.

It’s a long video, but about six minutes in there is a great time lapse showing the garden throughout the growing season. The students that helped to tend the garden are actually from the Elementary school I can see from my living room window. I wish I had had that opportunity as a kid–I think it would have fundamentally changed my relationship with vegetables.
This Op-Ed also presented a newer age solution to the food production problem–vertical gardens in urban centers.
As the first signs of fall start to show on the East Coast and we see the bounties of the late summer harvest start to wane, I’m thinking more and more about how my food is grown and how I will eat as the farmer’s markets shut down in a few months. I appreciate that our First Lady, and subsequently everyone involved with feeding the White House is thinking about these things as well.
I’m also going to be trying my hand at canning for the first time this weekend, so stay tuned for updates on that adventure.
UPDATE: Ariel reminded me of the recent news that the White House garden’s soil has toxins at elevated levels–apparently due to Clinton era fertilizers with increased toxins. While the levels aren’t above what is suitable for human consumption, it highlights our modern day problem–we’ve polluted the soil, ground and air we need to sustain us. I still think the symbolism of the White House garden is important, even if it wasn’t the organic food supplier Michelle had originally hoped.

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16 Comments

  1. femme.
    Posted September 2, 2009 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for bringing food politics to Feministing, Miriam. I’m looking forward to reading about your canning adventures! I’ve never had an edible garden and I’ve never canned, or composted, but I am committed to doing so once I have the space. I wish everyone who had the space (and in many cases, the income) would start a garden, start canning, recycling, composting, buying more food from farmer’s markets and co-ops, just anything we can to vote with our dollars and our lifestyles.
    That Op-Ed was really interesting. Vertical farms in urban centers sounds like a great idea. It would be so awesome to see a few smaller prototypes in cities like NYC, Chicago, Portland, etc. Even better, in my city!

  2. TeenMommy
    Posted September 2, 2009 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    I can a lot of my own food. It’s somewhat expensive to get into it though if you will be canning non-acidic items because you need a pressure cooker to safely do that.

  3. blissed0and0gone
    Posted September 2, 2009 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

    I agree TeenMommy, but cracking open a jar of fresh peaches in January makes it all worth it!

  4. TeenMommy
    Posted September 2, 2009 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    Oh, it is! I just don’t want anyone trying any unsafe canning methods with regular old kitchen items.

  5. GREGORYABUTLER10031
    Posted September 2, 2009 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

    I HATE that phrase “the high cost of cheap food” – it implies that food should be expensive, and that low cost food is a bad thing.
    Considering that most of the world’s population makes less than 2 dollars a day, an end to cheap food would be a death sentence for them.
    Even in America, most Americans barely have their economic heads above water – raising the price of food guarantees suffering, misery and want for those folks.
    If corporate farming guarantees cheap food – and all this ecology stuff will impose expensive food – then long live corporate farming and down with environmentalism!
    Beyond that, the food processing industry employs millions of American workers in factories, canneries, frozen food packing sheds, warehouses, trucking companies, railroads, docks and stores – those people have to eat too, and the whole “local foods” dogma ignores that hard economic reality!

  6. GREGORYABUTLER10031
    Posted September 2, 2009 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

    It only “sounds like a good idea” if you have no practical idea about how agriculture actually works.
    Plus, high urban land prices and construction costs would make hirise agriculture financially impractical – unless there were enormous government subsidies for these inefficient farms.
    Not to mention the added labor costs of everything having to be carried up and down elevators – and the electricity costs of powering the elaborate elevator, HVAC and lighting systems, and the enormous water costs.
    The only crops that can be profitably farmed in an urban hydroponic environment are illegal crops like marijuana – and that’s because marijuana has a very high wholesale price, and an even higher retail price, so it’s economically feasible to grow pot with such an expensive and inefficient process.

  7. tulin
    Posted September 2, 2009 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

    i don’t know. i think the phrase “the high cost of cheap food” implies that somewhere along the line, someone or something ultimately pays in order for the food or product to be that cheap. whether it be the farmers who got screwed over by corporations, the animals who suffer inhumane conditions, the workers who get paid shit, the employees who don’t get health benefits, on and on.
    someone, at some point, fuckin’ PAYS for you (and i mean the universal ‘you’) to have a cheap hamburger. i don’t think the phrase implies that the product should be expensive, but rather that we need to think about the actual reasons we’re able to buy some frickin’ nuggets for 99 cents.
    but, that being said, it is daunting to think about what a better solution would be, with the resources we have and the sheer amount of people on this planet.

  8. dhsredhead
    Posted September 3, 2009 at 12:16 am | Permalink

    “I HATE that phrase “the high cost of cheap food” – it implies that food should be expensive, and that low cost food is a bad thing.”
    I think you really misunderstand. The high cost of cheap food is referring to the environmental, economic, health and other actual costs associated with the production of low cost foods. It does not make the claim that cheap food on the whole is bad, but that cheap food in reality isn’t very cheap. We as taxpayers are paying an extremely high price when it comes to paying the corn and soybean farmers, the oil companies to produce so called cheap fuel. We also pay the price in terms of our health when we suffer from diseases that we could avoid if we switched to unprocessed food (and secondly as taxpayers who pay health care costs associated with preventable disease and death). We pay in terms of lower water, air and land quality. This is the cost that consumers do not see when they see look at the difference in price between organic, locally produced food and conventional.
    Due to all of these hidden costs our food system is not only expensive but unstable. We need to move towards a sustainable form of food production before conventional becomes astronomically expensive or impossible to sustain due to lack of resources.

  9. spike the cat
    Posted September 3, 2009 at 12:31 am | Permalink

    Well I was inspired by all of this talk of sustainable food.
    Visiting my folks for the summer, I’m experimenting by growing some swiss chard, cherry tomatoes and basil all hydroponically (without soil) out of a 5 gallon bucket salvaged from my mom’s recycle bin. I used my dad’s soldering iron to melt holes in the plastic lid for the pots. Then I bought a $10 fish tank air pump to oxygenate the nutrient water in which the roots are submerged.
    It’s not much, but it’s a start. There are no weeds and few pests so no need for pesticides. Plus, hydroponics uses a lot less water than traditional gardening. The most expensive thing was the hydroponic plant food, but people have posted plenty of recipes online to mix it yourself for the chemically inclined…

  10. davenj
    Posted September 3, 2009 at 1:23 am | Permalink

    When you say “move towards a sustainable form of food production” you’re also saying something else:
    You’re advocating for a moderate-to-drastic rise in food prices in the short-term. Let’s be clear: even with the absolute best techniques, funding, and public support a wholly sustainable approach to farming would have at least 25% lower yields. That’s the best case scenario.
    What would that do to foreign food prices?
    Look, it’d be nice if our food policy was better, but understand that such a drastic change would be the equivalent of imposing a drastic food tax on the world’s poorest people.
    We do pay more than we think for our food, but we also pay to keep the price artificially low, which is a boon to a lot of people around the world.
    Until we find a way to work around this problem a movement like this will inevitably have disastrous consequences for the poorest among us, both at home and abroad.
    It’s easy to advocate from the position of a full stomach.

  11. Pantheon
    Posted September 3, 2009 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    How fresh are they really when they’ve been canned? I never thought of canned fruit as fresh.

  12. femme.
    Posted September 3, 2009 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    Let’s be clear: even with the absolute best techniques, funding, and public support a wholly sustainable approach to farming would have at least 25% lower yields. That’s the best case scenario.
    Actually, no. Organic farming often produces either the same or better yields, and in some specific cases, clearly beats genetically engineered or conventional farming.

  13. femme.
    Posted September 3, 2009 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    It only “sounds like a good idea” if you have no practical idea about how agriculture actually works.
    Plus, high urban land prices and construction costs would make hirise agriculture financially impractical – unless there were enormous government subsidies for these inefficient farms.
    First of all, I did not qualify my statement by saying “When I say it’s a good idea, I know it is, because I know everything there is to know about agriculture.” Based on the Op-Ed Miriam linked to and the one other article I’ve read about it, vertical farming does sound like a good idea, and it doesn’t sound inefficient.
    I never said that my statement was anything other than a “so far so good” initial reaction to the idea. Could you provide links to back up your personal assertion that vertical farming is “inefficient” and “financially impractical”? If so, I’d be happy to read them and learn more about it. And don’t ever come at me in anything resembling a condescending manner like you just did. Play nice.

  14. Kaethe
    Posted September 3, 2009 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    It turns out that the rumor about toxicity was an attempt to discredit both the Obama and Clinton administrations. You can read more on the garden at Obama Foodorama .

  15. Miriam
    Posted September 3, 2009 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    Kathe–thanks for the link. Seems like the story is more complicated that I first thought.
    I’m planning on doing an interview with a food policy expert to address some of the arguments that continue to be rehashed on these threads about the impact of organics on world food prices. So stay tuned for that.

  16. Kaethe
    Posted September 3, 2009 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    I look forward to that.

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