When Michelle Obama began planting an organic garden on the South Lawn of the White House recently, there was no doubt she was sending a message, but the message was more subversive and far-reaching than most American media coverage recognized. On March 20, joined by a class of local fifth graders, the first lady lifted the first shovels of dirt onto a 1,100-square-foot plot that will feature fifty-five kinds of vegetables, including spinach, peppers, arugula, kale, collards and tomatoes (but no beets–the president reportedly does not like beets). Various herbs and berries will also be grown in the garden, which is fully visible to the thousands of tourists and other pedestrians that pass by the White House daily. (There will also be two boxes of bees for pollination.)
Michelle Obama’s stated message was simple and was clearly aimed at her fellow Americans: fresh food tastes better and is better for you, so kids and grown-ups alike should eat lots more of it. “A real, delicious heirloom tomato is one of the sweetest things you’ll ever eat,” she told the 10-year-olds, adding that freshly picked vegetables were what prompted her daughters to try new kinds of foods.
What made Obama’s message so subversive was something she left unsaid: the food most Americans eat nowadays is not fresh, tasty or healthy. The superiority of fresh ingredients may be obvious to Italians, but it is a truth most Americans long ago forgot, if they ever knew it in the first place. Over the past fifty years, the United States has been transformed into a fast food nation, in author Eric Schlosser’s phrase. What the typical American eats is not so much food as it is highly processed food derivatives that have traveled thousands of miles since leaving the farm, losing along the way most of the flavor and nutritional value they once possessed. To disguise such losses, food manufacturers overload products with fats, salts and sweeteners, especially corn syrup–additives that, along with the massive portions typically served in the United States, help explain why nearly one in three Americans is obese.
Now, by publicly championing fresh local food, Michelle Obama clearly hopes to entice Americans away from their junk food past to a healthier, more delicious future. And that is what makes her message so far-reaching. Change America’s eating habits and you can change the world.
Shifting to a greener diet would be good not only for the health of America’s children and families but the health of the planet. The American diet, and the food production and distribution system that supports it, is one of the main drivers of global warming and a host of related hazards, from deforestation to air, soil and water pollution. Most people know by now that our civilization must fundamentally change the way it produces and consumes energy if we are to stop global warming. Far fewer people realize that it is equally important to change the way we produce and consume food.