Today has been a blur. Woke up early, dressed carefully and ate breakfast while we discussed a morning meeting with Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan and pinned down details about our White House visit.
Because it’s late and has been an amazingly long day, I’m mostly going to share about our visit to the White House garden. After attending a meeting at the USDA – and again visiting one my favorite gardens, the People’s Garden – our group walked over to the White House. We took a group picture on the north side of the White House, and then walked over to the south side for a group picture. You can see the White House kitchen garden from there, but it’s not a close view.
After waiting for a bit, we went through security screening. Our instructions were clear. No bags, no pictures, only what you could carry in your pocket. Neither my dress or cardigan had pockets, so I tucked my picture ID, some cash and my business cards in my shoe. (I know, I know). After we passed through security, we entered an atrium type area, where a member of the security staff provided very interesting answers to our questions about White House history, the First Family, the garden, etc. The staff person confirmed that in fact, Mrs. Obama is often in the garden.
Then, Assistant White House chef Sam Kass arrived. Kass came with the Obama family from Chicago to work in Washington, and has been instrumental in the White House kitchen garden project. Clearly, Kass is also driving pieces of the emerging White House food initiatives. He introduced himself to each of us personally, and shook everyone’s hand. We were then escorted outside across the lawn to the garden.
Kass shared a great deal of information about the garden. It’s not a huge garden, but has already produced several hundred pounds of food. Food from this garden is used by the First Family, has been served at official functions, and has also been donated to a local food bank.
Kass allowed us to sample tomatoes from the garden. They were warm from sunshine, and popped with flavor. Many of the plants being cultivated are heirloom varieties, and much of the garden philosophy – and plant material – is driven by one of our founding farmer fathers, Thomas Jefferson. A small plaque in the garden provides a Jefferson quote. Broccoli, lettuce, cabbage, tomatoes, herbs, sweet potatoes…and more, including a fig planted among mint. I rubbed the mint leaves and then smelled my fingers…amazing.
The garden is very well-tended…it has to be. There are many visitors. But…it looks achievable. There is also a weather station, and a bee hive, where honey has been collected.
Kass answered nearly every question we asked him thoroughly and thoughtfully. We were not permitted to take pictures.
I deeply appreciate that the First Family is modeling good health and eating by initiating this effort, and maintaining this kitchen garden. I value that the First Lady has school children come to visit the garden to learn. I love that the food produced is consumed by the family, and that some portion goes to less fortunate families. I love the contributions that Sam Kass, with his dynamic nature and good food ideas, has made to upping the status of gardening in our nation today. Thank you all for taking this important step.
Several blocks away, the USDA People’s Garden sends equally positive messages. Sited on the national mall, this garden is a first. Like the White House garden, it sends important messages to thousands of people each day about gardening, healthy eating, and the right use of civic space. A garden on the national mall…sacred space used for a civic purpose.
A special thanks again to my dear friend and fellow Fellow Roger Doiron, whose work promoting the idea of a White House garden really made this visit possible for us. Today was the culmination of a dream for Roger. It was also his birthday, and we sang the traditional birthday song to him as we stood in the White House garden, together, celebrating this special day.
Tonight, well over a hundred people gathered to learn about and discuss the food system. Each fellow was asked to make brief remarks about their work. Here’s what I shared:
“We were a nation of farmers at formation. We are a nation of farmers still, at heart. This is demonstrated by the garden revolution sweeping the nation. Seven million new gardeners this year. Seven million.
Yesterday, and again this morning, I visited the People’s Garden at the USDA. This garden is on the National Mall. Sacred space. I also visited the First Family’s garden at the White House. Both experiences were profoundly moving.
Last night, President Obama told the nation it is a “season of action.”
He is right. It is a season of action: it is time to move these initiatives out across the nation, to begin a NEW American revolution. A revolution that will create a garden in every school, every home, every community, and every workplace across the nation.”
- Breakfast meeting with Fellows to plan next steps.
- Giving talk on the Garden Revolution at U.S. Botanic Garden.
- Meeting with Christine Flanagan, U.S. Botanic Garden.
- Meeting with one of my favorite WWI historians, Elaine Weiss.
- Go to airport, blog like crazy, board plane, fly back to Oxnard via LAX.
- If no flight delays or issues, arrive home between 12:30 and 1:00 a.m.
Random Observations: During our visit, we saw the White House basketball court/tennis court. We also saw the First Dog, Bo, on the south lawn of the White House. We were far away, but it was clearly Bo.
This morning found me at the National Food Policy Conference. The keynote speaker was Kathleen Sebelius, former governor of Kansas, and now serving in the Obama administration as Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).
In her brief tenure, Sebelius has been busy framing a response to H1N1 influenza, and dealing with a host of food system issues for the new administration, an administration that is focusing seriously on food safety.
She got right to the point about childhood obesity. Sharing government statistics that medical treatment for all cancers in the U.S. tops $93 billion each year, she pointed out that the medical costs associated with treating obesity DOUBLE that, exceeding $186 billion per year. She indicated that chronic diseases cause 70% of deaths in America, and that their treatment represents 75% of all health care costs. She attributed much of America’s battle with obesity to poor childhood nutrition. Her conclusion? There will be huge benefits to both human health and the economy by addressing both childhood obesity and food safety.
Sebelius promised to “focus relentlessly on prevention,” viewing it as a “great investment.” There will be a national initiative, and American Recovery and Investment funds to support prevention efforts.
Sebelius is working closely on this effort with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. They served as governors together (Sebelius in Kansas, Vilsack in Iowa). The idea that DHHS and USDA will be working closely together – along with the Department of Education – is somewhat novel. This administration is emphasizing inter- and intra-agency cooperation to a degree seldom seen previously.
Food safety is a major area of focus for Sebelius. The national food safety workgroup she sits on has identified three core principles:
- Prioritizing food safety, not in response to specific crises, but to anticipate and prevent crises from occurring;
- Building partnerships and casting a wider net, sharing best practices across the nation, and building partnerships across agencies. Specifically, Secretary Sebelius spoke of the DHHS partnering with USDA on food safety, and with the Department of Education playing a role in childhood nutrition education.
- Being proactive.
Secretary Sebelius stated that along with the USDA, the DHHS strongly supports the pending WIC and Childhood Nutrition Reauthorization and the pending Senate food safety bill.
Like yesterday, imports were referenced in terms of food safety. Per Sebelius, 20% of food is imported, and more than 1/3 of produce and ¾ of seafood are imported. She spoke of the need to develop a 21st century food policy that emphasizes safety.
The morning’s big announcement was the launching of www.foodsafety.gov This website represents a significant effort to better serve American consumers by serving as a clearinghouse for all food safety issues. Recall and safety information is provided here, and you may sign up for email updates and feeds. There is a widget that enables individuals and agencies to link the website to their own sites. Mobile phone alerts regarding important food safety information will soon be available.
I visited the site today, and noted something interesting: the collaboration. This site is a joint effort between the White House, the USDA, the Centers for Disease Control, the FDA, DHHS, National Institutes of Health, and the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Services Division. This site is truly a valuable resource, and I urge you to visit it.
Sebelius noted that the “highest mission of any government is keeping its citizens safe.” The government’s new food safety website will help accomplish this.
Around lunchtime, I went with four colleagues over to the USDA for a meeting about the People’s Garden Initiative. While walking by the garden – which looks very different from when I saw it in March, a scant five weeks after it was planted – I saw Bob Snieckus. Bob is a landscape designer with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which is one of seventeen USDA agencies. I met Bob last March at the People’s Garden Partnership Forum, when he shared design plans. Today, Bob was working in the garden on his lunch hour, doing some volunteer work to perfect what already looked wonderful in preparation for the USDA’s Harvest BBQ, an event for members of Congress that was being held tonight, before the President’s address on health care.
Our group of gardening advocates had a wonderful and productive meeting with USDA staff about national gardening efforts and the USDA’s work in this area. I’ll post tomorrow what I learned about the green and sustainable efforts being undertaken by the USDA. The great work being done there deserves its own blog posting!
- Breakfast meeting with the Executive Director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition to learn more about federal ag policy and legislation, including the Farm Bill.
- Meeting with Kathleen Merrigan, Deputy Secretary of the USDA (gardening is one of three agenda items).
- Visit to the White House Garden. We have learned we will also be given a tour of the kitchen. New restrictions prevent us from taking any bags or cameras, but we believe that the White House staff will provide us with some pictures of our visit.
- Evening reception to present policy ideas to press and policy makers. Bet you can guess what my policy idea is….yes, a national gardening initiative like the WWI and WWII Victory Garden campaigns!
Random observations: High seventies today, scattered sprinkles. Warm and humid, but absolutely lovely this evening. We are staying at an historic hotel off of DuPont Circle, with a tiny lobby. As we crowded into the lobby this evening, preparing to walk to dinner, Madeline Albright and Tom Daschle came through the door, and headed up the flight of narrow stairs for a meeting. We ate dinner tonight at a restaurant called Founding Farmers. Founding Farmers is an unusual restaurant: it is owned by a collective of family farmers who are committed to serving sustainable food in a sustainable environment (the restaurant is LEEDS certified). The food was excellent, reflecting seasonal availability and a perfect mix of classic American dishes (cornbread and fried green tomatoes were appetizers we shared) and more eclectic offerings. The food is reasonably priced. I had a wonderful grilled cheese sandwich, tomato soup, and coffee. Six of us shared an enormous slice of red velvet cake and a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
My tablemates were Jim and Rebecca Goodman, Wisconsin dairy farmers; Lisa Kivirist, organic farmer/eco-preneur/writer/innkeeper from Wisconsin; Abigail Rogosheske, Institute of Ag and Trade Policy, Minnesota; Zoe Bradbury, young farmer/writer from Langlois, Oregon (and her husband, Danny, who is from Ventura!); and Roger Doiron, gardening hero and founder of Kitchen Gardeners International. Roger’s influence has made the White House visit possible. Thanks, Roger!
Recently, to mark the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birthday, Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack broke ground on The People's Garden at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In his speech, Secretary Vilsack set a goal of creating a community garden at every USDA site in the world.
This week’s selection of former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack as Secretary of Agriculture lit up sustainable food systems listservs like a switchboard. Vilsack’s nomination is not without controversy. He has been criticized for his ties to agribusiness and his support of biofuels and biotechnology. To many, Vilsack represents “agribusiness as usual.” But Vilsack also has a reputation for being a good listener and being able to work successfully with those who hold differing viewpoints. Those are reasons to be hopeful.
Yet another example of why we need to seriously reconsider our nation's food policy has emerged. Recently, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation commissioned an analysis of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Child Nutrition Commodity Program (CNCP), and how that program impacts the nutritional quality of school breakfasts and lunches.
The policy analysis, produced by California Food Policy Advocates and Samuels and Associates, focuses mostly on California, but its authors argue that it has "relevance to other states and the nation." I agree.
A little background: the USDA coordinates the distribution of commodities to more than 94,000 public and private nonprofit schools that provide meals to students. These programs support American agricultural producers by providing cash reimbursements for meals served in schools and other institutions serving children across the nation. The rationale for these programs is a worthy one, and goes back to early in the Great Depression, when surplus agricultural products were destroyed as millions of Americans went hungry, justifiably causing outrage. The development of federal policies to purchase agricultural surplus for distribution to hungry and underserved citizens solved multiple problems in Depression-era America, and beyond. It was progressive public policy for the time and is a key component of today's federal feeding programs.
What this most recent analysis finds is that many of the foods ordered by school districts fail to meet nutritional standards, because of the "processing" that occurs prior to the commodities being delivered to schools. This processing increases fat, sugar and sodium levels in these foods. The result: many commodity foods have about the same nutritional value as junk foods by the time they reach students. In a nation struggling with an epidemic of childhood obesity, this isn't good policy.
Taken directly from the analysis (available free-of-charge, via this link) are some key findings and recommendations, which I've italicized and included below:
Nationally, more than 50 percent of commodity foods are sent to processors (i.e., fat, sugar, and sodium added to foods) before they are sent to schools. Processing is not regulated for nutritional quality and often involves adding fat, sugar and sodium to commodity products.
California school districts used more than 82 percent of their commodity funds to purchase meat and cheese. They spent only 13 percent of their funds on fruits and vegetables.
There is little alignment between what California schools bought in federal commodity foods and what the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that people eat daily.
Dietary Guidelines for Americans should be reflected in School Meal Initiative Standards, and schools should have to meet them. Efforts to increase the amount of fruits and vegetables and decrease the amount of meats and processed foods purchased for school meals would contribute to providing students with much healthier foods."
I couldn't agree more.
This week, I'll be joining others who are active in the movement to improve the quality of school lunches at the Western United States Assembly on Farm-to-School, being held in Portland. It's sponsored by EcoTrust, and there is enormous excitement among those attending about the opportunity to gather, and to learn about the best models and practices in this field. I am looking forward to sharing what I learn in future postings.
An historical footnote: There is an incredible body of fine art and photography showing deprivation in America during the Great Depression, much of it produced by WPA artists. One of the most haunting pieces is a work entitled Lunch Hour. These pieces of art document a difficult period in American life. To me, they also serve as a reminder that many of the basic public policies and fundamental premises that shape our daily lives in America were crafted during the Great Depression. The Great Depression began for most Americans nearly eighty years ago, in 1929 (although a depression started in the agricultural sector nearly ten years earlier, post-World War I). These policies, which we know as the New Deal, represented a dramatic restructuring of American life that gave subsequent generations - us - very different expectations and experiences than our grandparents and great-grandparents had. This is all leading up to a big question:
Is it time for a New New Deal vis-a-vis the food system?
"A Garden for Everyone. Everyone in a Garden."