Photo Credit: Shrimp farming in Aceh, Indonesia. Photo by Mike Lusmore/Duckrabbit, 2012 via Flickr.com user WorldFish

Sowing seeds of good health and of unity

Ever since President Obama took office in January, he's kept his eye on the grand prize of making political discourse more civil. He's held up the ideal that Democrats and Republicans can find common ground and move beyond shrill partisan warring that has characterized politics for the last twenty-five years. In looking for places to boost this unifying project, the sunny patch of common ground on the White House lawn holds great promise. When First Lady Michelle Obama and her daughters together with Washington school children recently turned soil to start the new White House vegetable garden, they tapped into a deep well of America's heritage--the agrarian ideal and the related notion of self-sufficiency--but also into modern dreams of a more healthful food system not just for elites but for everyone. These ideals and dreams capture the imagination of people everywhere on the political spectrum. In the past year, as I've given talks about my book Kitchen Literacy: how we've lost knowledge of where food comes from and why we need to get it back, I've found myself talking with people from far right to far left, some from traditional farm backgrounds, some from city centers, some Christian fundamentalists, some Buddhists, some young, some old. I have been inspired to find people of all sorts excited by the hope of rebuilding local, regional food systems that can revive rural economies and provide better, more wholesome foods to more people. Like no other issue, the aim of rebuilding local agriculture has the potential to unite people in communities all across the nation-- to get us talking again about what is important and what is possible. And strategies from both political camps are clearly needed. With so many recent food recalls and food-borne illness problems, reforming government oversight of our food system is crucial. The USDA has a long history of sympathizing with producers, not consumers, creating an undeniable conflict of interest when it comes to food safety. Both FDA and the USDA have long been governed by leaders who rotate through revolving doors from big food and agri-business to government--drawing the credibility of the agencies into serious question. Another key area for reform is reducing farm subsidies that favor only the largest commodity crop producers. But we also need a bottom up approach to rebuild our food systems on a regional and community levels. Already citizens are working at the grassroots to identify barriers to thriving regional agriculture and to figure out new solutions. Small farmers are seeing themselves not only as producers in a large corporate-governed commodity system, but also as entrepreneurs who can tap niche and local markets. And even consumers are figuring out how to parley the power of their pocketbooks by taking personal responsibility for their shopping, by supporting local farms at farmers markets and by starting backyard vegetable gardens. On a practical level, the new White House vegetable garden will certainly grow great tasting lettuce for the first family and may even inspire local school kids to eat their veggies. On a more symbolic level, the garden can nurture a mix of personal responsibility and government reform that has the potential to re-unify America. As new seeds poke their heads through soil this spring, we can be hopeful.