Tuesday, Michelle Obama’s book American Grown hit the retail bookshelves, and by Tuesday night stores were putting 30% stickers on the upper right hand corner. Bestseller. Right alongside Fifty Shades of Mommy Porn and Screwed! How Foreign Countries Are Ripping America Off and Plundering Our Economy and How Our Leaders Help Them Do It. And I had to wonder: which of these three books is ruffling the most political feathers?
To help me navigate the 272 pages of Michele Obama’s history of the White House Kitchen Garden, I called in my friend Laura Matthews, gardener and writer for the blog PunkRockGardens.com. With her seven-inch high green mohawk and a tattoo of a turnip on her neck, Matthews’ hard-edged passion for gardening is evident.
Okay, I’m lying.
In her loose-fitting cottony shirt and glass bead necklace (probably an awesome hand-made find on Etsy), Laura looks like a perfectly approachable hipster mom. I wish I had the face for her shaggy pixie hairdo. Also, I’m coveting the small seashell ring with leather band she’s wearing. She may actually have a turnip tattoo, but I didn’t ask.
So what is Punk Rock Gardening? With the amount of cursing and angst involved in growing a few potted tomatoes on my back patio, maybe I’m already a punk rock gardener. Last week I did play some Beastie Boys to my kale.
“Gardening food is a revolutionary act,” says Matthews.
“I’m not growing plants to impress my neighbors, but to stake my independence. I want to teach my kids that there are alternatives to Big Macs and Egg McMuffins. ”
Matthews sees a lot of young gardeners growing their own food as both a political statement against the environmental damages of Big Agriculture, as well as a way to ensure their own security an uncertain economy.
I ask if she sees “growing your own” as a conservative or liberal act. Although, she could be a Libertarian. Maybe an anarchist?
“I’m a survivalist.”
She admits that some people might think she’s a little kooky with a curbside vegetable patch replacing her front lawn and a chicken coop in the backyard. But when it comes to the politics of what we eat, Matthews believes that folks from all parties have some common personal goals: healthy families, food safety, and a tomato that tastes like a gol damn tomato.
We turn to Michelle Obama’s book and flip through the table of contents. The chapters are divided by growing season, with different garden plans throughout the year. There is also a section with recipes for all that yummy greenery.
“This is very pretty. Well done.” The photography and slick design get an immediate thumbs up from Matthews. And the list of contributors and topics covered garner additional kudos.
“Will Allen is the grandfather of the urban farm movement, especially in minority communities. Obama’s got some good people in here. (The book) is a wonderful statement to encourage vegetable gardening.”
But Matthews is hesitant to give the book a five star rating. And it’s not just because the photo of Michelle tending the garden while wearing skinny jeans and swanky leather boots made us giggle. (Mud Baron, the “evangelical” master gardener who preaches the importance of school gardens -“the engines of environmental empathy” – admires FLOTUS’s work, while referring to her as “the woman who wears $600 shoes and has a garden on her lawn.”)
As apolitical as the First Lady seems to intend her book to be, there’s no getting past the fact this is an election year publication and that Michelle just happens to be married to one of the guys with his hat in the ring. The questions that come up aren’t too forced. Food, farms, and families are on our Congressional table. And it’s an understatement to say that Matthews isn’t thrilled with the President’s choice for Secretary of Agricultural, Tom Vilsack (a.k.a. Tom “Vile Sack”).
“Any knowledgeable agriculture official who allows the spread of GMO (genetically modified organism) crops despite truckloads of experts who are concerned about the effects on public health and detrimental environmental effects is a payed pied piper leading the US down the road to ruin.”
There’s also some admittedly cynical wondering whether the connections made between “Let’s Move”—Michelle Obama’s initiative to battle childhood obesity—and the White House Kitchen Garden aren’t tenuous at best. Growing enough food to feed a family even through one season can be a time consuming and costly venture, especially in the start-up phase. LetsMove.gov says that the First Lady’s garden is “planted, tended, and harvested by Mrs. Obama, White House staff, the National Park Service and visitors.”
My version of the National Park Service includes me and three trample-footed kids, one who frequently weeds out the seedlings as often as the real weeds. The learning process is valuable, of course. But we ain’t no Little House on the Prairie just yet. Ma is still stocking up on peanut butter and tuna fish for the long, lean winter. In our poorest communities, where the problems surrounding childhood nutrition are most desperate, both growing food and keeping kids safe and active can be complex, tricky, and money-hungry propositions. Not impossible. But it’s gonna take cash.
But overall, Matthews and I are all for kids knowing where their food is coming from (hint: somewhere beyond the produce aisle, although sometimes shipped from the fields of Chile.)
Whether it’s a trip to a local farm, tending a 14-acre community garden, or growing a pot of snap peas on a sunny balcony, we both agree that putting kids close to the source is a good thing. And seeing the First Lady of the United States of America with her hands in the dirt and bringing forth a delicious bounty is a model of stewardship we can applaud.