Michelle Obama’s Garden and the Problem With Growing Your Own Food

Maintaining a garden is difficult, back-breaking work. Is the First Lady making it look too easy?

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Ricky Carioti / The Washington Post / Getty Images

Michelle Obama plants mustard with members of the Girl Scouts of Western New York at the White House garden on March 26, 2012 in Washington, D.C.

On the long list of ways I’ve failed my family, I can now add my inability to grow crops. It’s not that I haven’t tried. If I calculated the dollars I’ve spent tilling, amending, mulching, staking, irrigating, fencing and fertilizing — all in my wildly unsuccessful quest to grow a couple hundred measly pounds of cellulose — I’d probably have to throw myself off a mound of organic manure. And that doesn’t even factor in the hundreds of hours of my labor or the opportunity costs of all the things I could have done with that time such as cooking for my family, for example, or reading to my children.

There’s a wonderful gardening movement underway in America, exemplified by the White House Kitchen Garden, lovingly detailed by Michelle Obama in her new book, American Grown. But when I see so many people growing food, I can’t help wondering, between my bouts of admiration and envy, if the transformative power of gardening has been oversold.

(PHOTOS: Harvest Season in the White House Garden)

It’s impossible to be unmoved by the story of how the seed of an idea now nourishes visiting dignitaries and local homeless shelter residents alike. But the food is in some ways the lesser story. Mrs. Obama invites the reader into the creation of an extraordinary community of school children, White House staff, volunteers and visitors, all united around a common goal of living healthy lives in harmony with the natural world. Citing the usual frightening statistics about childhood obesity and bemoaning the loss of outdoor play, Mrs. Obama makes a compelling argument for the role of gardening to promote and sustain healthy communities.

It’s a dream as old as our country. Thomas Jefferson called “cultivators” the most valuable citizens. Ben Franklin claimed that agriculture was the only honorable way for a country to prosper (in contrast to war and commerce, which he considered robbery and cheating). There were 75,000 school gardens at the turn of the 20th century and World War II victory gardens made up for the canned food that was shipped overseas to feed soldiers. All across the country today, community gardens are flourishing under the attentive care of new immigrants, parishioners, municipal workers and friendly neighbors. The Rainbow Beach community garden has been going strong in Chicago for 70 years. Camden New Jersey’s community garden program provides produce for one-tenth of its population, an amazing contribution to one of the country’s most economically and crime-challenged cities.

(MORE: The Locavore’s Illusions)

But all this ‘Apple Pie and Mom’ talk brings me back to my withered tomatoes. Gardening—whether as a community or an individual— is difficult, backbreaking work. (Michelle Obama has many helping hands at her disposal.) Once you successfully harvest a crop, you then have to figure out what to do with it, and it’s worth recalling that techniques such as canning, which are being enthusiastically resurrected in the 21st century, are incredibly time consuming and kept women tied, literally and figuratively, to the kitchen. Packaged and frozen foods may seem like a modern blight but, in reality, they freed women and helped them move into the workforce.

Alexis de Toqueville grasped the crux of the issue back in the 19th century when when he observed that gardening is a slow process requiring untold patience. Agriculture, he wrote in Democracy in America, “is only suited to those who have already large superfluous wealth, or to those whose penury bids them only seek a bare subsistence.” In other words: gardening favors those with time to spare, and that often means financially secure retirees or the very poor. For many time-strapped middle class families, however, gardening can almost feel like a luxury.

(MORE: Is the Fight Against Childhood Obesity Creating Eating Disorders?)

This is not to take anything away from the inspirational stories, especially when we consider the dire consequences of a life lived detached from the natural world.  But, along with our kitchen gardens, we need to keep the pressure on higher-level forces at the root of our national health crisis, too. Bring back recess and playtime in schools. Stop the unfair agricultural subsidies that flood the market with processed food and keep prices for many unhealthy foods artificially low. Without a multi-pronged approach to wellness, our homegrown lettuce won’t amount to a hill of beans.