In 2009, First Lady Michelle Obama, aided by local school children, planted the first seeds of what would become an impressive garden on the grounds of the White House, overflowing with vegetables, fruit and herbs. Nearby, the White House beehives keep busy pollinating the garden and making honey, which is often used as a gift for foreign dignitaries.
On February 25, 2016, the First Lady visited the Washington D.C. home and garden of The Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Community Compost Project Manager Linda Bilsens and Eriks Brolis. Her visit was a complete surprise — but Brolis and Bilsens were more than happy to give the First Lady a tour. The First Lady even sifted the couples’ compost. In return, she personally invited the couple to visit the White House Kitchen Garden.
“[Michelle Obama] is so elegant,” said Bilsens. “She is used to be people being speechless around her. She started the conversation for us. It was clear to me that she really cared about the subject of a healthy lifestyle for everyone, which involves growing your own food, and eating it and taking care of your soil. When my husband brought up composting, she was totally with it.”
The White House Kitchen Garden was the first of its kind on the grounds since Eleanor Roosevelt tended to her Victory Garden during World War II.
At the height of the Jimmy Carter presidency, 32 solar panels were installed on the roof of the White House. In 1986, when Ronald Reagan was in office, the solar panels came down one by one, and haven’t been replaced since.
This story has been told and retold — as a new president makes the White House home, they may alter it to their liking. Some wonder if the First Lady’s garden faces the same fate as many previous presidents’ projects.
This doesn’t quell the First Lady’s motivation to continue working toward her goals. She has continued to be active in local projects revolving around gardening, local foods and encouraging healthy lifestyles among the country’s youth.
The green expanse has represented many of the First Lady’s accomplishments in office — particularly her Let’s Move! initiative to combat childhood obesity. Aspects of the initiative include eating healthier, getting outside and exercising.
The garden, beyond reflecting the healthy lifestyle the First Lady hopes to instill in children, has also represented unity across the globe. In 2014, French President Francois Hollande was served a colorful salad, composed of radishes and carrots from the garden, with a honey dressing from the hives. Some produce is also donated to a nearby soup kitchen.
On Oct. 5, the First Lady gave a speech dedicating the White House Kitchen Garden and thanking everyone who had contributed to its success. It was a bittersweet moment, as the election cycle begins and the future of the garden is uncertain.
“And I have to tell you that being here with all of you, overlooking this beautiful garden — and it is beautiful — it’s kind of an emotional moment,” Obama said. “We’re having a lot of these emotional moments because everything is the last. But this is particularly my baby because this garden is where it all started. So we’re really coming full circle back to the very beginning.”
Brolis and Bilsens have been studying gardening for years, and their garden represents a success for local food and sustainability in the D.C. area. Bilsens is also the Community Composting Project Manager for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), a policy project centered on local sustainability.
With the upcoming election, Bilsens is worried about the future of White House Kitchen Garden which the First Lady has worked so hard to maintain.
“I do have the sense that this election will have a big impact on this,” Bilsens said. “I struggle to feel good about this election one way or another, however, I think the reality is that Hillary Clinton has promised to continue where the Obamas have left off.”
A future where Donald Trump is president is much hazier. Bilsens is unsure where Trump stands in regard to the garden — but doesn’t believe it likely he will support gardening and community composting, especially with his position on climate change.
Bilsens feels so passionately about the Garden’s survival, she penned an essay about it on the ILSR website. In the essay, she argues there is a demand for local food, which is only going to continue growing. She also points out gardening and agriculture has been a foundation throughout the U.S.’s history; a foundation she hopes will not be forgotten.
Bilsens explained how her family’s history and Latvian heritage play a large role in her attitudes toward gardening.
“I still have family in Latvia, and it’s pretty amazing to see these modern women, who dress up and do their makeup and wear heels, still go out in the forest on the weekends and identify what mushrooms are ready to harvest and safe to eat,” Bilsens said. “They are still very in touch with where their food comes from.”
She sees gardening as a way to connect with her roots across the ocean, but also to bring people together in the U.S.
“I think that [gardening] is something we can all agree on and unite around, in a time where there are so many things that could be dividing us,” Bilsens said. “To have something positive to focus our energy on is a very powerful thing.”
Whether Nov. 8 ushers in a Clinton or Trump presidency, the White House Kitchen Garden has offered inspiration, a lasting impact and powerful symbolism of harmony, health and environmental awareness.
Learn more about the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.