By Ellen Goodman
SCARBOROUGH, Maine—It’s been decades since that famous forager Euell Gibbons reached through the White House fence and picked four edible weeds out of the president’s garden. This is not something that the Secret Service would recommend you try today.
But Roger Doiron has a better plan for eating the view of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. He’s started a campaign to get a kitchen garden growing on the White House lawn.
Doiron works out of his small cape house in Maine, where I find him one summer day. A wasp-thin 41-year-old, he’s part of the fastest growing—I used the word literally—movement in the country. His organization, Kitchen Gardeners International, is one link in a loose chain of partisans who are neither conservatives nor liberals but locavores. They want to think global, eat local. Very local. As in their front and back yard.
He shows me the lawn sign that expresses his politics: “1,500 Miles, 400 Gallons, Say What?” It’s a reference to the average miles food travels to your plate and the gallons of fuel used in its migration. It’s not the sexiest slogan, but kitchen gardeners are probably as passionate about vegetables as Republicans are about tax cuts.
Doiron spent a decade with a grass-roots environmental group in Europe. Weekdays he worried about mad cow disease and weekends he ate happily out of his Belgian mother-in-law’s garden.
After returning to his homeland and hometown the week before 9/11, he became a lettuce-roots environmentalist. As head of KGI, he also walks the walk, showing me 50 varieties of vegetables he grows for his family of five on about a sixth of an acre. Memo to other amateurs: You will be pleased to know that Doiron’s garden also has weeds.
The appeal of kitchen gardens—food you grow for the table—has been increasing pretty steadily. Taste bud by taste bud. But this year, a harmonic or maybe disharmonic convergence of factors led to a giant leap in the number of grow-it-yourselfers.
For one thing, there’s the rising cost of food—45 percent worldwide in two years. There’s also the rising consciousness about the carbon footprint on your dinner plate. There is, as well, recognition of an international food shortage and moral queasiness about biofuels, growing corn to feed cars while people are going hungry.
Meanwhile, we’ve had more uncertainty about food safety, whether it was spinach in 2006 or this year’s tomatoes. And the floods that ruined millions of acres in the Midwest have undermined our easy sense of plenty.
“When people feel they are living in uncertain times, they turn to things that give them a sense of security,” says Doiron. “There are not many sure things, but if you put a few seeds in the ground and you don’t muck it up too much you’ll get a crop.” As proof he stands beside a neat patch of potatoes.
He adds, “Don’t do it because it’s the cheap thing to do or because Al Gore said it’s the right thing to do. Do it to make a small yet concrete step. You may not be able to single-handedly take on Exxon and Chevron but you can take on your backyard.”
In that spirit, Doiron is pushing for edible landscapes everywhere from schoolyards to governor’s mansions to empty urban plots. But he set his eyes on everybody’s house, the White House.
He wants the candidates to pledge they’ll turn a piece of the 18-acre White House terrain into an edible garden. Or rather, return it into an edible garden.
After all, John Adams, the first president to ever live in the White House, had a garden to feed his family. Woodrow Wilson had a Liberty Garden and sheep grazing during the First World War. And, of course, the Roosevelts famously had their Victory Garden during World War II, a time when 40 percent of the nation’s produce came from citizen gardeners.
It’s way too late for a Bush harvest, but the campaign to get the next president to model a bit of homeland food security has sprouted on Doiron’s Internet site called EatTheView.Org.
Eat the View doesn’t have the marching sound of John Philip Sousa. It doesn’t have the patriotic salience of a flag. But in dicey times, the idea of growing just a bit of your own food carries the real flavor of July 4th. It smacks a lot of independence.
Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at)globe.com.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group