On the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth earlier this month, the Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and his staff at the department's Washington headquarters broke out its shovels and "broke pavement" on a garden.
Dubbed The People's Garden, the project seems slated to simply replace a lot of unnecessary pavement with grass. But it is nonetheless a symbolic nod to the eat-local movement, which encourages community gardens in urban areas.
Will the Obamas be following suit? Vilsack adviser Neil Hamilton, the chair and director of the Agricultural Law Center at Drake University Law School in Iowa, says yes.
"I believe that by this summer there will be a garden – another garden, a vegetable garden – on the White House lawn," Hamilton said at a weekend legal seminar at Yale University.
The last time the 18-plus acre White House lawn was used for vegetable gardening was the '40s, when Eleanor Roosevelt started a home-gardening movement that helped feed the nation in wartime. "Victory Gardens" popped up across the country – and even the residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. could eat what their plot produced.
The Roosevelts weren't the first to garden on the grounds. John Adams, the first president who inhabited the White House, is said to have used a garden there to feed his family. And during World War I, Woodrow Wilson not only planted veggies, but grazed sheep on the lawn's lush grass.
Advocates say sowing the seeds of a new Victory Garden movement would be good for the environment, and also for families' budgets – the cost of food has risen 45 percent worldwide in the past two years. It could even play a role in public health at a time when the CDC says more than 60 percent of Americans are overweight or obese.
Alice Waters, the Berkeley, Calif.,-based chef who's a champion of locally grown, organic food, has been trying for more than a decade to get first families to set an example for others by gardening. She wrote several letters to the Clintons imploring them to cultivate a garden, including one in 1995 that read in part: "Help us nourish our children by bringing them back to the table, where we can pass on our most humane values. Help us create a demand for sustainable agriculture, for it is at the core of sustaining everyone's life."
The Clintons never bit on the garden idea, but supporters were encouraged when Waters held a campaign fundraiser last fall for Mr. Obama. Recently, at the USDA, Michelle Obama told employees: "I'm a big believer in community gardens, both because of their beauty and for their access to providing fresh fruits and vegetables to so many communities across this nation and the world."
But would the Obamas really dig up the South Lawn?
"I believe the Obamas are committed to that. It's a big idea, and its gonna happen," Hamilton said. "During the campaign, going around shaking peoples' hands, he never got sick once. He was eating well, and it could have to do with having an organic chef with him. This is someone who 'gets' nutrition."