The White House Kitchen Garden


I’m expanding my repertoire a little bit. While I’m still going to talk about my own projects, I want to share the stories of some other folks, too.

First up to bat is Linda Bilsens from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Washington, DC. Linda is the Project Manager for the ILSR’s Composting for Community Project, as well as the head of the Neighborhood Soil Rebuilders Community Composter Training Program.

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance is a national nonprofit that’s been around for 42 years. It began with rooftop gardening and has since expanded into areas like community owned internet access, recycling-based economic development, and composting. The program promotes urban-friendly composting systems like the one designed by Urban Farm Plans, a business started by Linda’s husband and his brother. The system was commissioned by the Washington, DC Department of Parks and Recreation. Their goal was to find a composting system that could stand up to the abuse of an urban setting – basically something that would keep rats out and could handle jumping and climbing kids. They developed a great 3 bin system that’s built like a deck and is affectionately called Compost Knox, after the impenetrable fort.

Linda has the same system in her own backyard, and it’s become a demonstration site for the city. It moved a step up when it was chosen to be on an HGTV show about urban gardens. Linda and her husband jumped through hoop after hoop in order to be on the show. Again and again they showed crews around their garden and compost system. Each time there were more people, and the final time one of those people was the Michelle Obama.


The jig was up – the HGTV show was all a front for the First Lady to find remarkable urban gardens in the city. As Linda said, “We got punk’d by Michelle Obama.”

The First Lady was very impressed and, like any good gardener, she invited Linda and her husband to see her own garden. They were welcomed in the Eastern Waiting Room, where foreign dignitaries are received, then taken on a private tour of the White House Kitchen Garden.


The garden was started by Mrs. Obama as part of the Let’s Move Initiative. The produce grown in the garden is prepared in the White House kitchen and also donated to the Food Bank Organization and local soup kitchens.

The last garden attached to the White House was created by Eleanor Roosevelt. She planted a Victory Garden, a popular show of self-sufficiency in support of the war effort at the time. Needless to say, the White House had been gardenless for quite a while.

And Linda’s main worry is that it’s going to go gardenless again. Before the election, the Clinton campaign had promised that the Kitchen Garden would stay right where it was. But now we’re past the election, and everything is up in the air.

Like a lot of people, Linda is unsure about the future, but she believes the Kitchen Garden has a strong case for staying. This election demonstrated a real divide in this country, particularly along urban/rural lines. If we’re going to come together and move forward, we have to find common ground, and Linda is confident that farming and self-sufficiency is a good place to start.  


The White House Kitchen Garden is a good candidate for a common denominator, but in order to work it has to survive. Linda believes that the best way to keep the garden going is to spread the word. Let’s get the message out there and tell people it’s worth having.  


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