Kids In the Garden

INSERT DESCRIPTIONArthur Rothstein, U.S. Office of War Information Child of a migratory farm laborer in the field during the harvest of the community center’s cabbage crop, FSA labor camp, Texas, circa 1940.

Last week’s news about the Obama family vegetable garden shows how far locavorism has come since the term entered the foodie lexicon in 2005. It also shows how Americans’ food supply has changed — and not changed — since Eleanor Roosevelt planted the last White House garden in 1943. Back then, Victory Gardens helped fend off wartime food shortages. Today’s rake-wielding first lady is waging war against obesity. During the Roosevelt administration, Dorothea Lange‘s photographs of child farm workers portrayed desperation.

Today, the image of Michelle Obama surrounded by Bancroft Elementary School students represents a big win for food activists like Alice Waters, founder of the Edible Schoolyard project. As The Times reported, the garden’s main purpose is to give children a hands-on education about “healthful, locally-grown fruit and vegetables.”

Admittedly, Bancroft Elementary already has a garden. So these kids should be pros with the hoes. They might even have a thing or two to say about the White House garden’s less-than-balanced choice of crops (just how many beds of lettuce does a family need, anyway?). The hope, though, is that all children who visit the garden, whether for weeding or just a walk-through, will in turn educate their families and communities about eating better. As the first lady emphasized, even Americans who don’t have time or space for a garden can eat as though they do — by buying more fresh produce, for example, and less processed food.

What’s missing from the cheerful photo-ops of kids in the Obama garden is the fact that producing fruits and vegetables is itself an involved process. A lot of work and skill goes into making them seem appealingly fresh and natural. This is especially true when they’re raised in nature-friendly ways — on diversified farms that substitute human labor for giant machines and harmful chemicals. Unfortunately, the one aspect of our food system that has changed little since the 1940’s is the low pay of the agricultural workforce, including on many organic and local farms.

Even if home gardening once again takes off with WWII-era enthusiasm, our health and wellbeing will still depend on people who produce food for a living. Yet the vanguard members of what The Times recently called the “food revolution” have had little to say about the workers.

It’s great that the White House now has a pretty green space where school kids can take an educational field day. But that won’t do much for all those grownups for whom growing vegetables is just another day in the fields. If Michelle Obama started talking less about the taste of heirloom tomatoes and more about the need for decent farm wages, that’d be a real Victory Garden.


Has there EVER been decent farm wages in any county in any era?

Scott Supak

Ironically, victory gardens should be very popular with anti-immigration people, and those who abhor the conditions of migrant farmers in America and Mexico. As Monsanto has taken over the seed crops for corn and, along with industrialization, pushed former Mexican farmers into illegally entering the US (or into the drug wars), our lack of local farms--especially cold frame and greenhouse farms in colder climes during the winter--has increased our dependence on imported and industrialized food that is usually not healthful or good for the environment, or for the workers who pick it, no matter where they are.

More food grown in backyards means less fuel used in industrial agriculture, and less demand for the workers who are abused and marginalized. We should couple our new found way to reduce demand for this industrial food (seed suppliers are reporting shortages--this is indeed a big deal) with programs to help Mexican farmers return to their land, growing heirloom varieties of corn that Monsanto doesn't control, thereby lessening illegal immigration.


Ben D

Exactly why is using machines to harvest crops less "nature-friendly" than using human labor? I would expect that on the macro level, the most efficient process would be best. Engineering that process to use less fossil fuel makes more sense to me than than simply saying current machines are bad for the environment, therefore human labor is good.


Growing food in greenhouses is far more energy intensive than growing it where it grows best and importing it.


As an economics blog, I feel someone should point out that wages (and a higher standard of living) are heavily influenced by productivity. And that unmechanized farming is about as productive today as it was a century ago, and shouldn't be expected to be better paying.

The reason so few people can feed so many so cheaply in the U.S. today is because of mechanized equipment on big "factory" farms.

And no-till farming is much better for the land than "nature-friendly" organic farming because less plowing results in less soil loss.

Susanne F

Ben D: machines aren't necessarily environmentally 'unfriendly'--but monocropping tends to be. Giant combines, harvesters etc make economic sense on monocropped fields, but not on diversified ones. Thus the need for human labor.


#3- Because machine harvesting, in addition to requiring petroleum inputs and compacting the soil, requires the planting of monocultures. One of the best ways to prevent soil degradation, erosion, pests, and disease is to plant several different crops together.


I went to high school in Berkeley, and my cafteria used the crops from that garden in our salads. It was the freshest, best tasting salad I've ever seen in a school cafeteria.


#5 - "The reason so few people can feed so many so cheaply in the U.S. today is because of mechanized equipment on big “factory” farms."

This is only partially true. Government subsidies also play a huge role in the price of agricultural products.


Two things stop me from planting vegetables in my backyard.
1) The local animals get to the crops first
2) Mosquitoes

I know there are solutions to these issues but these solutions overwhelm my enthusiasm for a garden.

Ben D

Susanne and Sarah: Thanks for the clarification. Still, these all appear to be engineering problems to me.

mel's ma

Upon reading about the White House Veggie Garden my first
thought was "did they test the soil first?"
I imagine the White House lawn has been well treated with herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers and I sure wouldn't want to eat the lettuce grown in such soil.
But being an admirer of the First Lady and a home gardener
as well, I bet she had lots of organic planting medium brought before the planting began.


Where is the link to the story about Obama family vegetable garden?


Beautiful. This is the ideal situation for economist (and for anyone) – creating a win-win-win-win situation. Money (tax) is spent on good cause, provides healthy diet, and teaches the children (and the public) about that, spreads the word around, and help Obama's support. The author might argue about the farm wage, but the important thing is to inform the public and get their interest, then after that is when theyre going to solve the problem. it is true win-win situation.


I think this idea could be very beneficial. After the past years, the people are looking at the new president for change. Many admire his thoughts and plans for the future. This holds true for his wife as well. If she starts a garden, I am sure that many will follow. Right now it could start as a simple garden, but if it becomes a large enough movement, the farm wages could become a problem the government will tackle.
I think it is important that the first lady is taking a stand against obesity and it is by these small steps that great things can be done.


This situation is a very beneficial one. There is no one loosing anything in the process, on the contrary, every one is actually winning something from it. Right now there is an obesity problem in the United States, and the idea of this garden might help the problem be solved. This process brings more followers to the American First Lady, it teaches kids how to eat in a healthy manner and how this healthy eating will lead to better life, and if the kids go home and explain what they have learned to their parents, then they will likely get into healthy habits as well. This is a good way to challenge the increasing problem of obesity in the United States.


Frankly, I'm stunned that nobody has pointed out that "decent farm wages" imply a price floor for farm labor, and that will create job losses for those whom we supposedly want to support. I would guess they would much rather have a job that pays a low wage (admittedly, a wage I would never want to be making) than no job at all. What it comes down to, then, is if you believe then gains to the winners (those who remain employed on the farm at a higher wage) are greater than the losses to the losers (those who no longer have a job). This is the case that unionized labor and those who are in favor of higher minimum wages make. It may or may not be true. There are studies supporting both sides.

This post is also confusing; she appears to be supported small, local gardens, but is at the same time professes concern for the plight of the farm worker. Based on my own experience, the more I produce in my own garden, the less I purchase from the store. The quantity of commercially grown produce demanded will decrease, which will in turn have an effect on the amount of farm labor demanded. While I'm all in favor of locally grown food (especially when it comes from my own backyard), Susanne doesn't appear to recognize (at least in this post) that you can't have it both ways.



Pro's with hoes HA HA


I have always had a small backyard garden. What I plant is the "high value" produce. i.e. tomatos, specialty peppers, herbs, etc. This has little to do with fulfilling day to day sustenance requirements and everything to do with enhancing taste. It seems to me that these will only displace crops that are also "high value" for producers. The same crops that might be thought of as potential for high profits and wages for farmers. I do not plan wheat, beans, corn, etc. that are already so cheap due to mass production because there is little to be gained either from a cost or taste perspective. So I doubt that gardens such as mine even multiplied by a couple of million will have a large impact on agribusiness. I do not imply that agribusiness is bad. In some cases it is cheaper and more carbon friendly to grow crops in far away places efficiently and have it transported in than to do it locally in smaller production units locally.




Ben, the people buying the food are paying for those government subsidies anyway, so it doesn't make food effectively cheaper.

The government always comes out with these pragmatic concrete-bound one-issue programs on subjects it feel students aren't thinking the right way about. Meanwhile it's all wasted because kids in school in the Western world spend all day pain stakingly winging it so that they can run out as fast as they can and forget it 5 seconds later.

More time needs to be spent on why education as a mechanism is failing and less on "fringe issue 122567 needs to have mandatory class time given to it."