When a colleague invited me to join her for a tour of the White House Gardens today, I jumped with glee. As an avid gardener and passionate good food activist, the idea of touring the White House Gardens — specifically, catching an up-close-and-personal glimpse of Michelle Obama’s famed vegetable garden — was a living, breathing dream come true. Then I learned that my tour would be part of a White House social media event — an annual tweetup hosted on the garden grounds designed to start a conversation about the healthy living work coming out of this administration. My inner social media geek and foodie personas rejoiced together. What a day this would be!!
As I planned for the event, I began thinking about the roots of the White House Kitchen Garden movement, and some of my friends who helped make this moment possible. Not since Eleanor Roosevelt was First Lady has food been grown at the White House, which is shocking when you think of the volume of kitchen gardens worldwide that feed families and communities. In a climate of industrial agriculture and big food, the Obama campaign’s message of change inspired farm and food advocates, who called for a kitchen garden at the White House again. A leader in this effort, Kitchen Gardeners International leveraged social media tools to make sure that their presidential call to action was heard. Thousands contributed to the effort and other organizations jumped on board — including Alice Waters and Slow Food USA. Before long, Michelle Obama had the South Lawn dug up and a vegetable garden installed. Now it’s a symbolic centerpiece of advances in good food policies in our nation’s capital, and is at the heart of her Let’s Move! initiative devoted to healthy living and wellness.
At the center of this story is the power of social media to inspire change. Social media gave the masses the power to tell the president that it matters to them how food is grown. Social media provided grassroots advocates with free tools to engage many in their White House garden campaign. Social media showed the Obamas that America cared enough about good food to ask the president and his family to try growing their own, and made the White House Kitchen Garden a reality. And social media is the tool that the administration has used to continue to engage people in the Good Food Movement in a conversation about the White House Garden, buying local and living healthy.
Today’s #whgarden tweetup is just one of the many ways that the Obama administration has used social media to engage constituents in meaningful conversations about the policies that matter to them. In only a few hours’ time, thousands of tweets had been sent using the #whgarden hashtag. In that time, the hashtag had reached nearly 20,000 accounts, and a conversation about the people visiting and touring the gardens had reached nearly 50,000 people. Nearly 200 tweets per hour were being sent using the #whgarden tag. A robust conversation about good food, good politics and good communications was underway.
This marriage of a live event and online storytelling shows how traditional and new communications tactics can be used in tandem to make a difference. And the White House Kitchen Garden is an example of how social media, paired with passion, can be a driver of social change. No matter how you slice it, the White House Kitchen Garden is evidence that people rallying around one message can make a difference, whether they’re in the same room or sharing the same hashtag.