Don't need to dig very deep for year's top story

December 28, 2009|By Susan Reimer

It's traditional for newspapers to make a list of the top news stories of the passing year, and I know what's No. 1 on my list.

The White House vegetable garden.

I am not sure there has ever been a patch of dirt anywhere that has received as much attention, been so widely imitated and been the source of so much controversy as that 1,100-square-foot garden on the South Lawn of the White House.

It even eclipsed the antics of Bo, the Obama children's long-promised pet.

Michelle Obama's modest attempt to get some fresh vegetables in her family's diet became an international sensation and hijacked the food conversation in this country.

The Queen of England, Maria Shriver and the mayor of Baltimore followed her example - as did municipalities all over the United States. When she went to Russia, no one wanted to talk to her about anything else, and when her husband hosted the G20 summit for world leaders, a jar of honey from the beehive in the White House garden was the gift for each of their spouses.

The first lady was even moved to say, "It's the best thing I've ever done."

It is true that just about anything a newly inaugurated presidential family does holds fascination for Americans - until we get bored with them.

But I am not sure there is anything the Obamas could have done, short of hanging out the White House wash to dry in the sun, that would have had such a profound impact on our thinking about our stewardship of the earth.

The poor economy and the threat of lost jobs helped propel Americans toward a money-saving alternative to the produce aisle at the grocery store, as did renewed concerns about the safety of our food.

But Mrs. Obama, planting the garden in her purple sweat suit and harvesting it in her salmon colored Gap jeans, surrounded by children who were surprised to discover that they liked fresh vegetables, captured the imagination of the country and changed how many Americans think about food and healthy eating.

Even her gown for the first state dinner did not garner the kind of attention that her garden gear did. (And by the way, herbs and greens from the garden were served at that dinner.)

A farmer's market was installed just outside the gates of the White House, with the first lady as its first customer. The vegetable garden was opened to tours for schoolchildren, and Mrs. Obama used the first harvest in June as a platform to help launch her husband's health care reform initiative.

Two reality shows, "The Biggest Loser" and "Iron Chef," used the garden as a prop. Mrs. Obama appeared on "Sesame Street" to plant a vegetable garden. Replicas of the garden were installed in one of Europe's biggest garden shows and at the Pennsylvania headquarters of Burpee, probably the nation's top garden seed seller.

A marzipan replica of it graces the holiday gingerbread White House, and assistant chef and head gardener Sam Kass, who starred in a White House video that tells the story of the garden, made People magazine's list of the 100 most beautiful people.

More than 1,000 pounds of vegetables were harvested from the garden, and it isn't done yet. Mr. Kass did a YouTube video on how to build row covers to conserve the sun's heat and grow winter crops.

Not bad for an investment of about $175 in seeds and soil amendments. I'm surprised the photo for the White House Christmas card wasn't taken in the vegetable garden (although it was taken outdoors on the lawn.)

Not surprisingly, the vegetable garden had its share of political enemies.

First there was the charge, after June's first harvest, that the garden had been "faked." Conspiracy theorists claimed that despite a lot of compost and a very rainy spring, the greens the school children harvested with the first lady had actually been purchased, fully grown, and planted in the garden in the dead of night, and that the media was complicit in fooling the American public.

Next were the stubborn reports that a previous administration had used a sludge fertilizer on the South Lawn that contained dangerously high levels of lead and had contaminated the vegetables. Not even a parade of scientists could squelch that rumor.

In this conspiracy theory, the first lady refused to let Malia and Sasha eat anything from the lead-filled garden. Instead, she shipped it off to soup kitchens where poor children would have their brain development and their futures stunted by the lead levels in the food.

All of this, over a simple vegetable garden?

Now that's a news story that should make anybody's list.

Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays.

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