The USDA People’s Garden Expansion

A White House garden will put healthy food for the First Family in the spotlight—and maybe a little healthy competition too, as Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack doubles down.
sam hurst usda

Last December during the transition, President Obama made it clear that he was interested in planting a garden on the White House grounds to provide healthy food for the First Family.

In February, Secretary Vilsack jackhammered pavement and brought in truckloads of topsoil to add a small vegetable and flower patch to the existing garden at the USDA Jamie L. Whitten Building, on the National Mall. Suspicious of Vilsack’s background as governor of Iowa, home to King Corn, some critics in the food world looked upon his small initiative as a publicity stunt, but little did they know.

Last week, about a month after the First Lady brought in local school children and assistant White House chef Sam Kass to break ground for an organic garden on the South Lawn, Vilsack announced plans to dramatically expand his “People’s Garden” vision to the entire Whitten Building complex.

While he was in Iowa, celebrating Earth Day with President Obama, Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, a leading advocate of organic agriculture, was joined by Joe Brings Plenty, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, to celebrate the contribution of Native Americans to American agriculture in the first phase of Vilsack’s big vision: a Three Sisters Garden of squash, beans, and Mandan-Hidatsa corn from the upper Missouri River.

According to staff, the Secretary has challenged all USDA facilities to plant their own People’s Gardens, but it may take the sprawling bureaucracy a while to implement his wish. Several Farm Service Administration state offices we contacted sheepishly admitted that they hadn’t yet gotten the memo. And Iowa FSA Acting State Executive Director Dennis Olson said, “We’ve been working so hard on the budget, we’ve got our hands full.” Olson might be permitted an indulgence: Farmers in his state have their hands full planting 13 million acres of corn this week.

Meanwhile, since Congress removed a provision from the stimulus package to clean up the Mall and plant new grass, there’s a lot of fertile land right outside Vilsack’s window. Both he and Michelle Obama might well be thinking: What better place for a farm?

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