The USDA’s People’s Garden Program

The creation of a garden gives clues about how our new Secretary of Agriculture—a man well-versed in commodity agriculture—is approaching food policy.

Ever since President Obama announced the appointment of former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack to be Secretary of Agriculture, advocates of healthy food, farmers markets, and community gardens have parsed his words and confirmation testimony for the first signals of how a man from the heartland of commodity agriculture might approach food policy.

Last week, Secretary Vilsack offered a small and symbolic, yet potentially important, first initiative. He put on a hard hat, took a jackhammer in hand, and broke through the pavement on a small patch of land adjacent to the headquarters of the Department of Agriculture, in Washington, D.C., and announced the creation of the first USDA “People’s Garden.”

“President Obama has expressed his commitment to responsible stewardship of our land, water, and other natural resources.” Vilsack announced in a press statement. “And one way of restoring the land to its natural condition is what we are doing here today—‘breaking pavement for the People’s Garden.”

The new garden will eliminate 1,250 square feet of pavement, and expand an existing garden that has historically been devoted to ornamental plants. According to Vilsack’s staff, the new garden project is part of a larger effort on the part of state and local governments, nonprofit community groups, and the federal government to restore the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem, which includes the National Mall.

“The changes signal a removal of impervious surfaces and improvement in water management that is needed throughout the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. The garden will showcase conservation practices that all Americans can implement in their own backyards and green spaces. As a component of the garden, pollinator-friendly plantings will not only provide important habitat for bees and butterflies, but can serve as an educational opportunity to help people understand the vital role pollinators play in our food, forage and all agriculture.”

The new garden, which is located next to the USDA farmers market, will be planted with fruit trees and vegetables and will be maintained by USDA volunteers. The harvest will be distributed to local Washington food banks.

USDA staff involved with the garden project report that Secretary Vilsack’s initiative reflects a commitment on the part of the new Obama administration to take a new look at the way communities use small urban spaces. Vilsack has asked all USDA offices worldwide to explore ways to create on-site People’s Gardens.

Terry Bish, of the Natural Resources Conservation Service reports that, “We’ve had different NRCS offices ask us how they can participate. They wonder if the program will be mandated. They wonder if they can reach out to their communities. We’ve told them, ‘No, this isn’t a mandate. But yes, take initiative and reach out. This is not a Washington thing. This is about encouraging new ideas at the local level.”

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