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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.