In the spring of 1943, the United States was at war, sending soldiers around the world to fight against Japan and Germany. With so many farmers and factory workers gone to fight the war, and foreign sources of energy cut off, food and fuel — desperately needed to support Allied troops overseas — were in short supply. And so, meat, milk, sugar, canned foods, fuel oil, kerosene and gasoline were all rationed on the home front. Across America, conservation wasn’t just a fashion — it was considered a patriotic duty.
And it was in the midst of this crisis that First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt tore up a section of the pristine White House lawn to plant a humble vegetable garden. A victory garden.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, fearful that a surge in home gardening might threaten the profits of corporate farms, publicly scoffed at the First Lady’s gesture, claiming that home gardeners could not possibly provide enough food to make a dent in the national supply.
And yet, by the end of the war, the USDA had jumped aboard the victory garden trend, issuing free educational home gardening booklets to citizens, while local city and county governments conducted gardening seminars and sponsored contests for the best home produce. And tiny home gardens in yards and on rooftops, and community gardens in parks and formerly empty lots, were supplying an estimated 40 percent of the nation’s produce.
But the World War II victory gardens supplied much more than emergency food. By sharply reducing the number of miles the average fruit or vegetable traveled from field to plate, the victory garden movement conserved a significant amount of gasoline and oil for the war effort. More than a food conservation project, World War II’s victory gardens may have been the most widely adopted energy conservation project in the nation’s history.
In early 2009, as a new President took office, the United States was again at war. A long, expensive war we are still fighting — a war in which oil not only fuels the truck and tanks of our own soldiers, but also pays for the weapons the opposing side wields against us. The world was in the midst of an unprecedented economic crisis that had plunged many Americans into poverty, straining the nation’s charitable food banks. And the United States was trailing far behind other industrialized nations in addressing the impending threat of oil- and coal-fueled global climate change.
In the face of these crises, and at the urging of sustainable food advocates, First Lady Michelle Obama tore up a swath of the White House lawn and planted a vegetable garden.
And her symbolic gesture may well have made an impact. According to the National Gardening Association, the number of households planting home gardens in the U.S. increased by 19 percent in 2009. But is the U.S. government truly doing enough to encourage home gardening?
As the horrific Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico continues to wreak environmental havoc all along America’s Gulf coast, we are reminded in a forceful way of just how terrible the costs of reckless fossil fuel consumption can be.
And conventional agriculture depends significantly upon products derived from fossil fuels, from the petroleum-derived ferilizers often used on commercial farms, to the diesel fuel used to carry produce across a country or even across an ocean, to the gasoline ordinary consumers use to drive across town to a grocery store, to the coal-fired electricity those stores often use to keep produce cold and fresh.
Every time an American picks a tomato from a sustainably grown backyard plant instead of an imported tomato on a supermarket shelf, he or she is conserving fossil fuel — taking one tiny, tiny step toward preventing another Deepwater Horizon. And while one home garden may not make much of an impact on our nation’s fuel consumption, history has shown that tens of millions of home and community gardens can.
It’s certainly inspiring to see organic vegetables growing on the White House lawn. But during World War II, when the nation faced a crisis that required a change in our agricultural habits, posters appeared in libraries and post offices and public schools everywhere, urging families to garden for the sake of their country. Public service announcements on the radio explained how homegrown produce could actually help save the world. Federal officials traveled to local government offices to encourage the creation of community gardens. With such efforts, our government once convinced an entire generation of Americans to tear up their grass in favor of beans and corn. Why aren’t our leaders doing more to encourage gardeners now?
It may be far easier to raise public ire against an enemy army than to rally a nation to support an environmental cause. But the threats of climate change and oil spills are just as real as an enemy army, and possibly more dangerous. For the sake of our nation, for the sake of humanity and the Earth, conservation must become more than a fashion in America. It must become our new way of life.
photo credit: WWII era USDA poster - Public domain