In Jerzy Kosinski's novel and award-winning screenplay, "Being There," the U.S. president turns to a plain-spoken gardener named Chance for wisdom at a time of economic crisis. The insight Chance offers is as simple as it is reassuring: Growth has its seasons and, as long as the roots of growth are not severed, all will be well.
President Barack Obama would be wise to add a gardener or farmer to his team of advisers. I already know what advice I'd offer if called to serve: Launch a new victory garden campaign starting with one on the White House lawn.
To some, this idea might seem too small to have an effect on anything as large as the country's economy, environment or health-care system, but you need to dig into U.S. history a bit to grasp the idea's full potential. The last time a victory garden was planted at the White House was by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in 1943 when the country was at war and the economy was struggling. Roosevelt's leadership inspired millions of Americans by giving them something tangible and meaningful they could do to make their own lives better and their country stronger.
But the victory garden movement did much more than simply lift America's spirits. It also grew tons of healthy, affordable food (nearly 40 percent of the nation's produce at its peak), encouraged millions of citizens to become more physically active, and helped conserve natural and financial resources at a time of crisis.
That season of crisis has come again, and the idea of relaunching a new homegrown movement is once again winning hearts and minds, not to mention contests. A year ago, well before anyone knew who the next "eater in chief" would be, I entered the proposal to replant a food garden at the White House in the "On Day One" contest, an online project sponsored by the United Nations Foundation to generate policy recommendations for the new administration.
To my own surprise and many others', the proposal won first prize, beating out more than 4,000 other entries including ones by a Nobel Peace laureate and a Spice Girl. Whenever you can finish ahead of a peace star and pop star in a popularity contest, I think you're on to something. What the idea needs now is some star power of its own, and I can't think of anyone better than the Obamas for planting the seeds of the next victory garden movement.
Time will tell whether the First Family decides to plant the first vegetables, but I can already tell you that my first veggies are looking promising. Last fall, I planted a few rows of salad greens in a cold frame that poked their green noses out of the ground an inch or two before the cold, Maine winter sent them into a deep slumber. I recently shoveled out my cold frame and gently pulled back the blanket of mulch I had put over the greens. With the sun now rising higher in the sky and taking daytime temperatures with it, those greens are starting to wake up and begin a new season of growth.
Skeptics may read this and say that that my garden and other new ones won't add up to much, but my findings suggest otherwise. Over the course of the last growing season, my wife and I weighed every item that came out of our garden and calculated that we grew $2,200 worth of organic fruits and vegetables, which we're still happily eating our way through. And that's not counting all the sweet peaches, snappy snap beans and drip-down-your-chin tomatoes that never made it as far as our kitchen scale. If you take into consideration that there are more than 50 million American households with modest yards like mine who could be making healthy, homegrown savings of their own, those are no small potatoes.
It is true that keeping a garden takes time and occasionally requires some hard work, but what worthwhile thing in life doesn't?