Local Food Pinnacle

Linn Street in Iowa City. Photo by the author.

As a freelancer for the Iowa City Press Citizen I took any story offered by my editor. I was recommended by her predecessor when the newspaper was short reporters. The P-C was in transition as their parent company Gannett outsourced printing, sold the presses, and moved from spacious offices on North Dodge Street to a walk-up on Linn Street. In all, I wrote about 100 freelance articles for the Press Citizen, Solon Economist and North Liberty Leader during 2014-2015.

The following article about Scott Koepke’s visit to the White House Garden during the Obama administration was one of several front page stories I got. I had been working for a couple of farms tied into the local food movement and Koepke’s experience was as good as local food gets. It is one of my favorite newspaper articles among those I wrote.

Lessons for Iowa from the White House Kitchen Garden

A local food advocate and gardener recently returned from Washington, D.C., where he had the opportunity to visit first lady Michelle Obama’s White House Kitchen Garden.

“I’m still floating from the experience,” said Scott Koepke, education and outreach coordinator for New Pioneer Food Co-op, after the trip. “I’ve been telling folks that I wish I had some grandkids to pass this story on to. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a gardener.”

Koepke’s sister, Ann, arranged a formal tour of Obama’s kitchen garden on Oct. 20. While there, he found lessons to apply in Johnson County. “If the president can do it, we can do it,” he said.

“What I appreciate most about Michelle Obama’s influence is that she has not only put nutrition and balanced diets high on the national agenda, but she has shown a creative use of green space for edibles, not just turf grass. As such, the White House garden message advances biodiversity, food security and, as the tagline on my email says, ‘Building community by building soil.’ “

The visit to Washington directly serves Koepke’s work with the Soilmates program, an interactive, organic garden and compost education service for children and adults, offered by the co-op.

He works with area schools to create garden clubs with plots of vegetables on school property. Koepke interacts with more than 33 organizations and 8,000 school children and community members annually, covering gardening, composting, soil science, local foods and life skills.

One of New Pioneer’s primary environmental missions is to stimulate the local production of organic food, Koepke said. Soilmates’ child-driven focus hopes to advance that mission by growing stronger community roots and sprouting the next generation of gardeners and soil-lovers.

“Just like seeds that often lay dormant, sometimes the gardening experience doesn’t manifest itself in transforming a life until years after the initial introduction of getting in the dirt,” Koepke said. “I’ve had folks come back to me many years after they worked with me saying that the lessons learned in the school garden helped them through rough waters. I couldn’t ask for anything more rewarding as a teacher.”

“The White House kitchen garden experience has affirmed even more the work I’m so blessed to do here with children in school gardens,” Koepke said.

Local farmer and school garden advocate Kate Edwards, of Wild Woods Farm, confirmed the didactic nature of the White House Kitchen Garden.
“I think the White House garden is a fantastic example and a wonderful use of space,” Edwards said in a text message. “Growing a garden is a fantastic way to interact with the food system and to take a vested interest in your own health.”

The support comes from other advisers, too.

“I believe Soilmates is on the leading edge in Johnson County to nature-based good health and education,” said Joyce Miller, Kirkwood Elementary School garden adviser. “Demand for this approach is flourishing. I have known Scott Koepke and his work with local school garden programs for years. He developed his Soilmates curriculum to present the delight and benefits of growing soil and food organically, teaching children life skills in the process.”

Mike O’Leary, a retired elementary school principal at Coralville Central, helped oversee their school garden for 15 years. Since retiring, he also has been involved with school gardens at Hills and Hoover elementaries.

“Having a garden space at a school is like having an additional ‘outdoor classroom,'” O’Leary said. “Students don’t need to take a bus or field trip to see first-hand how you can grow your own food. The Soilmates program has been successful.”

Establishing and maintaining a school garden is not without its challenges, Koepke said.

Supporting a garden club places demands on teachers whose plates already are full. If a key teacher leaves and a garden becomes neglected, it could easily be turned back to grass for its easy maintenance.

That’s what happened after first lady Eleanor Roosevelt dug a “victory garden” on the White House lawn during World War II. During the Truman administration, it was converted back to turf — that is, until Michelle Obama’s arrival.

Koepke’s job is to make sure the Soilmates program and the school gardens it engenders is a vibrant and growing element of life in the Cultural Corridor. Visiting the White House garden proved to be an inspiration.

~ First published on Dec. 1, 2014 by the Iowa City Press Citizen.