Nothing is really moving in Washington right now, so it’s no surprise that First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign has come to a screeching halt—and with it, the famed White House kitchen garden, which has yielded hundreds of pounds of fresh produce and inspired countless home gardeners to green thumb greatness. In short, the garden is a mess.
To anyone who’s ever carefully tended backyard tomato vines or a bed of summer herbs, the pictures posted on Obama Foodorama, a blog about White House food initiatives, are downright depressing. In the span of a couple weeks, during which all but essential White House maintenance staff have been furloughed, the showcase garden has gone to seed, with Sungold tomatoes rotting on the vine, squirrels marauding through the beds, and a burgeoning papaya tree groaning under the weight of fruit that’s now almost certain to go to waste.
It’s a stunning and precipitous reversal for what, until very recently, had been one of the most visible symbols in the First Lady’s efforts to encourage Americans, especially kids, to eat healthier. While a skeletal crew of groundskeepers remains on duty at the White House, they’re allowed just two activities, according to the blog: watering and removing trash.
The lawns aren’t even being mowed, so it stands to reason that no one is available to weed the beds featuring heirloom varieties of peas, spinach, lettuce, and cabbage once popularized by Thomas Jefferson. Plans for the annual autumn harvest party—during which school kids help the First Lady pick everything from okra, sweet potatoes, and squash to turnips, garlic and chile peppers—is on indefinite hold.
To be sure, the White House kitchen garden isn’t likely to become the most salient casualty of the pointless partisan brinkmanship that’s caused the federal government to grind to a halt. Not when you have furloughed workers and unpaid government contractors scrambling to try to pay their mortgages, critically ill cancer patients being denied experimental treatments by the National Institutes of Health, or veterans whose disability payments are now in jeopardy.
But it is a symbol, nevertheless. I get paid to be funny here (or at least try to be), and while writing about things like the recent effort by the makers of Hot Pockets to sex up their scalding cheese bombs makes that easy, I can’t really find anything to laugh at here.
Not even when I am reminded of the so-absurd-they’re-astonishing charges conservative commentators have made about Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign. (Here's a pretty good roundup.) Whether it’s Glenn Beck postulating that someday all this talk coming from the White House about healthier eating could lead to prison time for indulging in a side of fries to John Stossel wondering aloud, “If the government is allowed to dictate our diet, what’s next? Do they start deciding who we’ll marry…?,” it all seems ridiculous and ridiculously funny—until you realize it’s that sort of fearmongering and reductive reasoning on the right that’s gotten us into this mess in the first place.
Seriously, if you can find Communist designs in the First Lady’s efforts to encourage kids to eat more veggies, then it’s no surprise that these people see the Affordable Care Act as the second coming of Stalin.
It’s cold comfort to think at least we still have a White House kitchen garden, even if it’s currently in disarry. If Ann Romney were First Lady, no doubt by now it would have been turned into a dressage ring.