Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Eat the View

Last night, I attended a lecture at the American Club of Paris.  Roger Doiron (whose last name has always been a challenge for me because of its decidedly French provenance—how does one pronounce it in English?), the founder of Kitchen Gardeners International, presented his organization’s work to get a garden planted on the lawn of the White House.  Beginning in February 2008, his campaign, Eat the View, worked successfully to bring edible sustenance back to America’s First Lawn and in so doing inspired thousands of Americans to do the same in their own green spaces.

Doiron, a soft-spoken man with a dry sense of humor, began his presentation with what he called the “Doom and Bloom” segment.  In presenting the depressing and yet oh- so- real statistics on U.S. oil consumption vs. food production and population growth, he raised the pertinent point that the days of the “3000 mile Caesar salad” are coming to an end.  Did you know that in the U.S., every one calorie of food takes TEN calories of fossil fuel energy to produce?!  That’s insane and completely unsustainable.  In short, Doiron’s statistics pointed out that while (and perhaps because) more people are being born into the world every year, we earthlings are living on less land on which to grow the food needed for these new mouths.  In other words, a new way of feeding ourselves will have to be embraced by the masses or else we will perish.

In comes Kitchen Gardeners International.  Doiron called himself “a crazy gardener from Maine” who started the non-profit in 2003 in order to help “connect the dots for people” wanting to grow their own food.  He considers the mission of the organization to be three-fold: To plant the next generation of gardeners, to teach and connect gardeners on-line, and to do the same on the ground, both near and far.  The organization today boasts a network of 10,000 gardeners in 100 countries (India, interestingly, has one of the most active networks).  Whenever I again have a yard (or even a balcony that actually gets sunlight of any sort), I intend to become involved in this network as well.

 KGI gained real notoriety when Doiron began work on the Eat the View campaign.  He showed us two videos he produced to help spread the message of bringing real food back to the White House lawn.  Did you know that the Wilson’s put sheep on the front lawn during WWI as a way to help conserve resources and Eleanor Roosevelt had a victory garden there during WWII?

Despite the fact that these two instances were the only times in the 20th century that food was grown at the White House and that food powerhouses, Michael Pollan in ’91 and Alice Waters in ’95, tried unsuccessfully to have Bush, Sr. and Clinton put in gardens, Doiron was convinced he could get the next president to grow something. And he did!  Through a successful video, internet, and press campaign, the Eat the View movement succeeded and a White House kitchen garden was planted by Michelle Obama, Chef Sam Kass, and local elementary kids on March 20, 2009. 

Perhaps the best part about the WH kitchen garden is that it wasn’t just for show.  The Obamas actually eat from it, and use the produce grown in official State dinners.  They also donate a large amount of its food to a local pantry.  To date, 450 pounds of food has come from the garden!!  It has also inspired America to get with the program—7 million home gardens were planted this year- and the rest of the Western world may be following suit.  Buckingham Palace put in a kitchen garden, although its people were quick to point out that there was no connection to the fact that Michelle O. had one.  Even still, the influence that one garden can have on the world, whether it be a famous one like at the White House or one in our own back yards, is considerable.

During the Q & A at the end of his presentation, Doiron was asked what political repercussions have come from the Obama’s garden (he was also asked what kind of “mud” he used on his garden by a 90-year-old lady in the front row- “compost” was the answer).  He mentioned that the chemical farming lobby had a lot of negative things to say about it because the garden is indeed an organic one.  Michelle O. wisely chose not to respond to the lobby’s statements, but the issue remains.  The lobbies for Big Agriculture are big forces in American politics, and in turn, American lives.  If you read any of Pollan’s books or Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, or Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, you’ll find this out.  And the issue with Big Ag isn’t just in the U.S.  I was dismayed to find out from a follow-up audience comment that it is illegal in Europe to sell the products of heirloom seeds!  That’s right- a European farmer selling fruits or veggies from a non-corporate seed source can be prosecuted for doing so (and apparently has been in France according to the audience member, although I need to research this, seeing as how it came from an older gentleman wearing an all green corduroy suit with red socks- reliable source?  Perhaps not.) 

Despite the political issues and “Doom and Bloom” statistics, Doiron’s lecture was a positive one, as is his message.  He closed the evening with a quote from Hugo, “More powerful than the march of invading armies is an idea whose time has come.”  He thinks that the time for the average man (or woman or child) to get his hands dirty in the garden has come, and I for one, agree.


  1. Maybe when I get my new kitchen I will be so much less annoyed that I will plant a kitchen garden. ALSO not because of Michelle Obama, because don't even get me started.

  2. I LOVE that you posted that White House garden link!! I know Matt will be really interested in this blog (and that video)! We do need to get Kingsolver's book!! It keeps sitting in our Amazon basket!