“If you don’t plan to plant a garden in Lake Wobegon in the spring, it means you plan to be planted yourself.”
It’s an affirmation of life and fresh food from novelist Garrison Keillor that found favour on both sides of the Atlantic recently and one that carries potent messages for food manufactures and retailers.
Last week Michelle Obama, aided by local school children, dug up a patch of the South Lawn to create the first vegetable garden at the White House since Eleanor Roosevelt’s Victory Garden, planted in the Second World War. The organic garden will provide fresh vegetables for the first family’s meals and for formal dinners but its most important role will be to educate children about eating fresh vegetables and fruit.
Taking pride of place in the White House’s 18 vegetable beds will be peppers, peas and spinach, berries and herbs, according to a report in The New York Times. But there will be no beets - apparently the President does not like them.
Mrs Obama’s not-so-secret garden is a very public commitment to healthy eating. It’s a superb way of persuading more Americans to eat fresh fruit and vegetables at a time when life-style related illnesses and obesity have become quiet killers in US communities across the country.
Food retailers and processors
It’s an initiative that could have powerful implications for food retailers and processors. If thousands or indeed millions of Americans develop a new taste for fresh local fruit and vegetables, apart from saving billions of dollars in healthcare, it could send seismic shock waves through the food industry. It could radically change the eating habits of a generation with obvious benefits to human health but less obvious negative impacts on the companies which produce and sell convenience foods.
Mrs Obama was clear where the drive to eat more healthily should start. “You can begin in your cupboard,” she told The New York Times, “by eliminating processed food, trying to cook a meal a little more often, trying to incorporate more fruits and vegetables.”
It’s a powerful message that US consumers could take if not to their gardens, then at least to the shops. You don’t need to grow fresh vegetables in order to eat them. Under the spotlight of presidential patronage, fresh fruit and vegetable sales could rocket.
Also, this could be an opportunity for food manufacturers and processors. They could respond by incorporating healthier ingredients in their food products.
Yes, the Obamas’ garden could be dismissed as tokenism. But it is unquestionably a powerful token which others will be tempted to emulate. Already Unilever’s Haagen-Dazs has pledged to distribute two million bee-friendly flower seeds this year aimed at encouraging other American families to plant vegetable and fruit gardens and help bees to pollinate them. Many others are likely to follow the Obamas’ lead.
But why did they choose to plant an organic garden? Despite exhaustive studies no-one has ever proved that organically produced fruit, vegetables and meat are intrinsically better for human health than non organic foods. They are certainly less demanding of scarce resources but not necessarily healthier.
Some believe the decision to make the garden organic was intended to send a signal about the need to reduce reliance on modern, industrialized farming with its colossal thirst for fossil fuels for power, for fertilizers and pesticides and for transport. It will be interesting to see if the Obamas’ private interest in organic food production will be matched by public policy commitments.
Meanwhile, the recent emphasis on growing your own fruit and vegetables is not confined to North America. Earlier this month one of Britain’s biggest landowners, the National Trust, pledged to create 1000 new allotments on its land over the next three years to allow local communities the opportunity to grow their own fruit and vegetables. Reflecting both economic and health interests, more and more people want to grow their own food with more than 100,000 people on allotment waiting lists.
The new allotments could be used to grow up to 2.6m lettuces a year, or 50,000 sacks of potatoes or mixed produce with a value of up to ₤1.5m, according to the National Trust.
The last time so much public land was devoted to allotments was when the nation’s parks were converted to vegetable beds during the Second World War.
Perhaps, then, it’s not too fanciful to think of the White House vegetable garden and the National Trust allotments plan as key developments in another war: The war against obesity and unhealthy eating. The folks in Lake Wobegon would be proud.
Mike Stones has written on food and farming topics for 20 years. He lives in Southern France and co-owns a small family arable farm in northern England. If you would like to comment on this article please email michael.stones ‘at’ decisionnews.com.