Former first lady Michelle Obama’s winter CSA came courtesy of current first lady Jill Biden and the White House garden, which Obama originally planted. Obama posted a picture of the basket on Instagram, writing, “So thankful for this beautiful care package from our amazing @FLOTUS! These fresh veggies from the White House Kitchen Garden were such a wonderful—and delicious—surprise. Love you, Jill!” To which, Jill, who shares her husband’s gentle corniness, responded, “Food is love.”
One can read this as a clear statement on Biden’s part, just as Obama’s choice to build the garden was a clear statement. The former first lady broke ground on the garden in 2009, and at the time the symbolism wasn’t subtle: She believed buying local and organically grown food, with less of a reliance on industrial farming, would make for healthier Americans. To that end, the first lady chose to grow vegetables, which hadn’t been done at scale at the White House since Eleanor Roosevelt tended her victory garden.
It was a deeply intentional project, and Obama published a book in 2012, American Grown, in which she explained every choice made. She said she wanted it to be a “learning garden,” where children could plant seeds and come back and see the literal fruits of their labor, as well as a statement on childhood nutrition.
“As both a mother and a first lady, I was alarmed about reports of skyrocketing childhood obesity rates and the dire consequences for our children’s health,” she wrote. “And I hoped this garden would begin a conversation about this issue—a conversation about the food we eat, the lives we lead, and how all of that affects our children.”
It certainly started a conversation, though not the one she intended. The garden—and what it represented (namely, the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act)—became a conservative talking point, able to fill minutes of airtime with gleeful bad faith arguments that, looking back, seem as quaint as a tan suit. The argument at the time? Vegetables are elitist (really, it was that Obama’s efforts to improve school lunches threatened industrial agriculture’s bottom line).
So when Trump won the election, all eyes, or at least some eyes, were on the garden. Ann Coulter even tweeted in 2016: “I respectfully suggest a new name for Michelle’s White House vegetable garden: ‘Putting green.’”
Melania Trump instead chose to quietly-ish maintain the garden that Michelle built. That equivocating mirrors the equivocating on the part of the first lady at the time, which we grew used to over the past four years. She could have easily taken steamroll to it and put up—I don’t know—a cold, modern sculpture garden. Would have been cool! But a lot less nutritious.
Instead Melania chose to publicly harvest the vegetables that the Obamas planted, and also add cement reinforcements to help make the garden permanent. It was one of the first things she did once at the White House in 2017. “I’m a big believer in healthy eating…it encourages a healthy mind and body,” the first lady told the children gathered around her at the event, all from a local Boys and Girls Club. Was the event in and of itself a sign that she would try to continue Obama’s school lunch efforts or otherwise promote some food policy at all? No, there was never any legislation support or lobbying or even another day in which she hosted children at the garden after that. Where there was explicit intentionality before, here there were just some simple platitudes and a lot of guesswork. Most people focused on the $1,380 Balmain top she chose to garden in, anyway. No conservative pundits managed to rail against elitism on that one.
So now the garden is back front and center, via a “care package” from one first lady to another, posted for all to see on Instagram. It’s a signal that Obama’s efforts are at least approved of in Jill’s East Wing, and bodes well for the support of small farms or school lunch efforts—though what, exactly, support of the garden materially means will have to be seen.
It’s something of a lovely image of continuity beyond that too: The vegetables were planted during the Trump administration. Even though Melania chose not to advertise it, beyond that 2017 photo-call, someone kept planting. At least we have the peaceful transfer of vegetables.
More Great Stories From Vanity Fair
— Cover Story: The Charming Billie Eilish
— Kobe Bryant’s Tragic Flight, One Year Later
— How the PGA Polished Off Donald Trump
— Could the Monarchy “Go Over a Cliff” After Queen Elizabeth Dies?
— 36 Essential Items for Recreating Iconic Billie Eilish Nail Moments
— Inside 2021’s Celebrity-Gossip Renaissance
— What Will Melania Trump’s Legacy Be?
— From the Archive: The Brant Brothers’ Quest to Conquer Manhattan
— Not a subscriber? Join Vanity Fair to receive full access to VF.com and the complete online archive now.