US Department of Agriculture chief Tom Vilsack may not deserve that recently awarded Grist green thumbs-up after all. Obamafoodorama (blissfully abbreviated as ObFo) has an amusing and edifying (and lengthy) disquisition on Tom Vilsack’s much ballyhooed “People’s Garden.” When Vilsack took a jackhammer to a slab of concrete in front of USDA headquarters in honor of Lincoln’s Birthday (the USDA was founded under Lincoln and referred to by him as “the People’s Department”), he thought he was demonstrating the USDA’s commitment to sustainable landscaping. But he did it without, it appears, much forethought.

The planning process seems to have consisted of one step: “Dig a hole.” There’s no design for an actual garden to go in its place — and it certainly was not intended, as many have presumed and now demanded, to be a food garden. The landscape plan that Vilsack brandished in a USDA photo was, according to USDA/Natural Resources Conservation Service spokesman Terry Bish, a prop. When ObFo asked about it, Bish said “Oh, that’s old. Those are the plans from when [former Ag] Secretary Schafer was planting a tree in the ornamental garden to honor a USDA employee who was killed in Iraq.”

In fact, the whole thing was a photo op that got out of hand.

But the goal of the garden changed when it became apparent that there was a groundswell of public interest in a food garden at USDA headquarters.

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“Suddenly there was all this interest from the public about vegetables,” Mr. Bish said. “It was a sleeper. Sometimes we do these things, and they get really big.” He repeated: “There’s actually no timeline for the garden. It was all about the Bicentennial. But now we have to come up with ways of maintaining it and to see how we can use it …”

But will the garden include the rumored (via USDA press release) “wide variety of garden activities including Embassy window boxes, tree planting, and field office plots … [with a] landscaping and building design to retain water and reduce runoff; roof gardens for energy efficiency; utilizing native plantings … [meant to] return the landscape to grass … [that] will showcase conservation practices … and pollinator-friendly plantings”? Not so much.

When pressed on that point by ObFo, Bish repeated, “Yes. There will be fruits and vegetables.” The people will be getting what they want. I guess they’ll have to find a new home for that historic Magnolia sapling from the White House lawn that the First Lady popped by to donate.

It’s worth reading the whole of the post to understand what ad hoc bureaucracy looks like. It ain’t pretty. And with a public groundswell on the side of fruits and vegetables, it’s a good thing Big Ag didn’t get wind of all this. Given the political dynamic surrounding food, they probably would’ve forced old Tom to pour the replacement concrete himself. Still, I’ll say this: Tom Vilsack clearly threw an ossified bureaucracy for a loop with his jackhammering hijinks. Maybe the “optics,” as the political operatives say, aren’t so bad after all …

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