It appears that one of the most visible achievements of Michelle Obama’s legacy as first lady will live on in the Trump White House: her garden.
First lady Melania Trump announced last week that she would preserve the White House vegetable garden planted in 2009. It came as a surprise to many nutrition advocates and food policy experts, who had expressed fears that Michelle Obama’s garden and the health and nutrition initiatives it symbolized could be endangered under the Trump administration.
Some advocates, including Michael Jacobson, president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, are lauding the new first lady for expressing a commitment to the garden.
“I would give them credit for keeping the garden,” Jacobson told The Huffington Post, “and I hope they eat some of the food that comes from that garden.”
Still, individuals like Jacobson are trying not to read too much into it, given the scant details yet known of the Trump administration’s food policy plans.
“Best to wait and see,” New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle said by email. “It’s hard to keep up with alarms from the White House, let alone potential alarms.”
There is legitimate cause for concern, however.
Prior to the election, the Trump campaign called for “eliminating” the “FDA food police,” indicating that food safety protections could be at risk. A memo from Trump’s agriculture advisory committee suggested a shift toward conventional, non-organic agriculture. The House Freedom Caucus is also pushing Trump to dismantle the improved school lunch nutrition standards Michelle Obama endorsed, a request it appears the president could be amenable to.
Further, Trump’s choice as agriculture secretary, former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, has raised concerns for dismissing climate change warnings as “a running joke,” despite the fact that farming is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.
“The current stance of this administration looks horrible on any number of fronts, and it shows no respect for economics or science generally, starting with climate change,” Jacobson told HuffPost. “I think things look very grim.”
In the absence of concrete food policies, Trump’s personal dietary choices carry added significance in the eyes of some experts.
A new report published earlier this month showed that Trump, frequently seen chomping down on KFC buckets and McDonald’s Big Macs on the campaign trail, has cut back on the fast food but still eats an unbalanced diet.
According to the report, by Axios’ Jonathan Swan and Mike Allen, Trump’s diet in the White House mostly follows a “steak-and-potatoes narrative” but also includes some fish and seafood, Cobb salads and vegetables. It appears he rarely eats fruits or nuts and typically snacks on Lay’s potato chips and cream-filled Keebler cookies.
Trump’s food preferences indicate to Richard McCarthy, executive director of Slow Food USA, that “food and food policy may not be very near and dear to his heart” — at least not the type of locally-grown, sustainably-produced healthy foods promoted by the so-called good food movement.
“If anything, it’s the anti-intellectualism of the 1950s, steak-and-potato dinners that are politically and culturally projected and defended as ‘American,’” McCarthy said. “The food movement, with its farmers markets, CSAs and preventative health, is almost the opposite of what he’d want to be aligned with.”
McCarthy believes fledging USDA programs, such as community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs and farm-to-school initiatives, could be threatened by a Trump administration that doesn’t appear all that interested.
“These programs are young and vulnerable,” McCarthy said, adding that he believes the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program “food stamp” and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition programs could also face cuts. “They don’t have huge lobby institutions to keep them afloat in a time where the political imagination is one of economic scarcity.”
White House officials did not respond to a request for comment on Trump’s food policy priorities.
Despite all the unknowns, Jacobson is confident that already-growing consumer demand for healthful, sustainable options will continue to build in a way that may sway policy.
“There’s a lot of momentum for Americans eating healthier diets and companies, big and small, producing healthier foods,” Jacobson said. “I don’t think everything will be reversed or that people are going to resume drinking soda pop at the rate they were drinking it 15 years ago.”
Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food, water, agriculture and our climate. Follow Erbentraut on Twitter at @robojojo. Tips? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.