USDA officials pitch in to help with White House garden
Secretary Tom Vilsack helps in planting, while scientists plan to provide parasite-resistant honey bees for pollination.
While helping First Lady Michelle Obama plant a White House fruit and vegetable garden last week, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said it is his job to make sure the federal school lunch program is funded sufficiently so children get fruits and vegetables in their daily diets.
President Obama proposed in his recent budget that Congress increase spending for child nutrition programs by $1 billion per year. But it's unclear what other programs might be cut to pay for the increase. The Obama budget proposed phasing out direct payments for farmers with more than $500,000 in sales, which would raise $1.2 billion per year, but farm groups reacted negatively and Congress has rejected that approach.
Vilsack said after Michelle Obama broke ground for the garden in March, seed sales went up. Mrs. Obama also noted that this is the first White House fruit and vegetable garden since Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt planted a victory garden during World War II. At that time, Americans were encouraged to grow their own food because commercially raised food was needed to feed the troops.
Mrs. Obama said the cost of seeds and small plants was less than $200 and the garden will produce enough food to feed the first family, supply some official White House dinners and provide donations for Miriam's Kitchen, a soup kitchen near the White House.
But when Government Executive asked Vilsack if Americans should plant gardens to save money during the recession, he said they should plant gardens because "it's a real opportunity to reconnect with the land" and because young people would get exercise and fight obesity. When one boy at the White House event said planting made his back hurt, Vilsack told him that he should imagine how much work is required to grow the food that he eats. "It educates them how difficult food production is," he said.
Vilsack wore slacks and a tie and jacket, prompting a New York Times food writer to ask him why he was dressed that way for gardening. Vilsack said he had to catch a plane after the event.
Mrs. Obama said on her recent trip to Europe with her husband, the "number one question" she got was about the garden. "Every single person, from Prince Charles on down, they were excited about the fact that we were planting a garden, because in many countries they really believe in the importance of planting and growing your own food."
According to a White House fact sheet, the garden measures approximately 1,100 square feet. It is located on west side of the South Lawn and will be visible to tourists from outside the White House fence. Only organic fertilizers and insect repellants will be used and lady bugs and praying mantises will be introduced to naturally control other insects.
Assistant White House chef Sam Kass, who followed the Obamas to Washington from Chicago, noted that a White House carpenter who raises bees has set up hives nearby for pollination purposes. The Agricultural Research Service reported that in July, USDA will be providing two types of parasite-resistant honey bees developed by department scientists to pollinate the plants in the garden.
The garden will be tended by Dale Haney, grounds superintendent for the White House, and Kass, who is also the White House food initiative coordinator.
Asked about whether he was worried that the Obama family dog might dig in the garden, Kass said, "We're going to cross the dog when we come to it."