I love visiting big cities. Though I live in a small-to-medium size city and love having its amenities without the traffic and expenses of big city life, there is something about checking out a town with a real functioning transportation system, a Central Business District that’s more than six blocks long, and many, many places to visit.
Thankfully, I live a short drive away from many big cities. This past weekend, my family headed to Washington, DC for a screaming trip to visit a family member in town for a conference (who lives much, much further away). Since it was the first time the kids had been there to sightsee, we crammed in several standard touristy things before we left.
And of course, since I can’t get away from food-related things, even on vacation, we drove along the National Mall and spotted the People’s Garden on the USDA‘s lawn. Beautifully manicured, the garden had a variety of crops growing, both those that people usually have growing in their backyards and those that are generally just commercially grown (I know no one who grows wheat in their backyard).
Later on, we visited the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) (which, by the way, is quite possibly the best museum I have visited in ages). It too has a demonstration garden, highlighting crops that are traditionally used in Native cooking – and used in the fantastic museum cafe.
But once I saw the two gardens, the gears started turning in my head. The comparison of the two, and their underlying reasons for development, irks me. The Smithsonian‘s vision is “shaping the future by preserving our heritage, discovering new knowledge, and sharing our resources with the world,” and the NMAI’s mission is to advance “knowledge and understanding of the Native cultures of the Western Hemisphere, past, present, and future, through partnership through Native people and others.” USDA’s mission involves providing “leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources, and related issues based on sound public policy, the best available science, and efficient management.” Further down the page, its strategic plan highlights key activities of the Department. Which further irks me, because “enhancing food safety” and “improving nutrition and health” only come after “expanding markets for agricultural products,” “support[ing] international economic development, ” and “further developing alternative markets for agricultural products and activities.”
Combined with the discussion several weeks ago about the disconnect between the USDA’s nutrition guidelines and its agricultural subsidy, the USDA’s demonstration garden seemed like lipstick on a pig (or, as my husband proudly said, ‘making chicken salad out of chicken shit.’ And yes, I still married him). It’s glossy, pretty, right on the Mall to advertise to tourists, and doesn’t actually reflect what the USDA does inside the Whitten Building.
In contrast, the NMAI demonstration garden is in perfect alignment with the museum’s, and the Smithsonian Institution’s, mission and vision. So although the garden is a little less glossy, and doesn’t have the broad range of crops available in the USDA garden, it does its job honestly.
Advocating for a government agency to reflect the needs of the citizens it serves is a constant struggle between competing interests. And I laud the USDA for trying to raise awareness with the People’s Garden program. But until it puts its money where its mouth is in its budget, it can do much, much better than some raised beds in a corner.