The UN Dispatch-Grist collaboration continues today with a discussion of the top user-rated idea on On Day One: ‘Eat the View,’ by Roger Doiron. This idea was so popular, it even found its way into The New York Times.

Here’s what he suggests:

Announce plans for a food garden on the White House lawn, making one of the White House’s eight gardeners responsible for it, with part of produce going to the White House kitchen and the rest to a local food pantry. The White House is “America’s House” and should set an example. The new President would not be breaking with tradition, but returning to it (the White House has had vegetable gardens before) and showing how we can meet global challenges such as climate change and food security.

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Kate Sheppard, David Roberts, and Timothy B. Hurst respond below the fold.

Kate Sheppard

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Wow, I had no idea that the White House had eight gardeners. The yard isn’t even that big … it seems like one could work on a vegetable garden. I like this idea because it’s not something totally new — the White House used to have a vegetable garden. It might be a nice message to the public that we haven’t always lived in a world with a globalized food stream — a place where you can get bananas from Nicaragua cheaper than you can apples from Washington. It would be nice if this were something that people visited on their tours of the White House, and if it were used as a conversation starter about local foods and their benefit for planetary and personal health.

I like what the questioner had to say in the Times article: “This would not be a quaint little garden for the White House chef. I have something fairly ambitious in mind, that would make a powerful political statement — a garden large enough to cover most of what the White House needs, with an overflow to a local food pantry.”

I grew up on a family farm, so local, fresh food is something I think that more people should have greater opportunity to access. Unfortunately, many people don’t have that privilege. I don’t have any expectations that everyone in the country (or many, for that matter) are going to go out and start their own garden just because the White House has one. I think that idea seems a little too quaint for most Americans. This is part of the reason I like the way the questioner frames it. This shouldn’t be about a quaint little garden patch, but about a real demonstration that our food source is important, and that growing local is possible. I also like the idea of giving a portion to a local food bank — I think it’s important that we link this climate and food initiative to greater ideas about public service, justice, community building, and responsibility to those around us.

David Roberts

This really is a fantastic idea, on a number of levels.

First of all, lawns are an environmental nightmare. Lawns are America’s single largest irrigated crop. They cover over 49,000 square miles, three times the area covered by corn, the next biggest crop. (By contrast, concentrated solar power plants covering an area 1/6 that size could provide 100 percent of U.S. electricity.) They drink up between 30 and 60 percent of urban freshwater and are doused with more than $5 billion in fossil-fuel-based fertilizers and $700 million in synthetic pesticides a year (numbers as of 1993; hard to find anything more recent, but we can assume those numbers have gotten much larger via the housing boom). Most of the water and fertilizers are wasted through poor doseage and timing; both wash into overburdened sewage systems. America’s lawnmowers burn 800 million gallons (and spill more than an Exxon Valdez’s worth) of gas a year in horribly inefficient engines, producing up to 5 percent of total U.S. air pollution.

So anything that can replace lawns — drought resistant landscaping, stones or gravel, or, yes, a food garden — is a blessing. For the White House to explicitly reject a lawn would be epochal.

Secondly, as Kate said, it could be a great model for how to produce local, organic, fresh food. There’s enough space on the White House grounds to generate quite a bit; it could be used to feed the staff, visiting heads of state, or best of all, visitors. Imagine if the wide, sterile, and now unused road in front of the White House hosted a farmers market where food grown on the grounds was sold to tourists. Dreamy.

And while we’re dreaming, why don’t we put those solar panels back up on the roof from whence Reagan tore them down? And let’s throw a green roof up there while we’re at it. Might as well do a full efficiency retrofit too. Oh hell, just take it off grid!

I’m told someone applying to live there wants to bring us change we can believe in. Well, Ghandi said you should be the change you hope for in the world. Show, don’t tell.

Timothy B. Hurst

In the spirit of full disclosure, I must say that I am an avid vegetable gardener, and have maintained one, or helped to maintain one, for pretty much my entire life (excluding the seven years I lived at 10,000 ft above sea level). The garden is where I go in the morning, and on breaks from reading and writing about environmental politics throughout the day. It is an unbelievable way to focus my thoughts about the serious environmental issues of today that often get lost and scrambled from hours of staring at this very computer screen. I am not saying that our next president should be spending hours on his hands and knees pulling stubborn bindweed from the strawberry patch, but the image of a garden on the White House lawn, and the image of a President in that garden could do unbelievable things for home-gardening, community gardens, family and neighborhood cohesiveness, economic well-being, and our collective health.

Presidents have always been able to incorporate their various fits of decorative and recreational whimsy into the Pennsylvania Avenue address. Thomas Jefferson built water closets on the upper floor to replace the outdoor privy. Jefferson also created a wilderness museum in the Entrance Hall with mounted animals and Indian artifacts.

Bowling lanes were first built in the White House as a birthday gift for President Truman in 1947. As it turned out, Truman didn’t care for bowling himself, but allowed staff to start a league. But in 1969, President and Mrs. Nixon, both avid bowlers, had a new one-lane bowling alley built.

There have also been theaters built, basketball courts created, and horseshoe pits dug. The avid swimmer, President Ford, installed a swimming pool. But much like the solar panels Jimmy Carter had installed on the roof of the White House (which were later torn down by Ronald Reagan within months of his moving into the residence), a vegetable garden on the grounds of the White House could make the type of political statement that the other recreational additions could not.

Part one, two, four, and five of On Day One: UN Dispatch-Grist collaboration.