Roger Doiron is the founder of Kitchen Gardeners International, a nonprofit that works to relocalize our food supply. Most notably, Doiron and Kitchen Gardeners organized Eat the View, the successful campaign that brought gardening to the lawn of the White House. Now that they’ve made our first family a little healthier, the organization will continue advocating for healthier, more localized foods.
Fast Company: What’s your definition of sustainable food?
Roger Doiron: Sustainable food is food we can eat that won’t prevent our children from being able to eat the same food down the road. It’s the classic definition of sustainability: living in a way that doesn’t prevent future generations from being able to live in the same way. If you can visualize concentric circles, I tell people that kitchen gardening, producing your own food from scratch, is the inner circle. The next concentric circle is sourcing food from other local sources, your town, your region. And then beyond that, the national and international circles. The trick is trying to get more people eating within those inner circles.
When you can’t produce some of your own food because of where you’re located or because you live on the 14th floor of a high rise, look for other sources. Ask yourself how the food was produced; know how the animals that produced it were treating. I had coffee this morning. I don’t have any problem drinking coffee, but I try to buy the best possible, making sure it was grown organically and the farmers were paid a fair wage. Just be a more informed eater.
FC: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing sustainable food right now?
RD: I think we face a couple. One statistic I try to share as broadly as I can is, in order to feed 9 billion people nutritiously in 2050, we’re going to need to produce more food over the next 40 years than we have produced over the past 10,000 years combined. So that challenge is really a production challenge. Where will this new food come from? And it’s doubly challenging because we’ll need to produce this food with fewer resources. In the highly industrialized us food system, one of the largest inputs is oil, fossil fuels. It takes somewhere between five and 10 calories of fossil fuel energy in our food system to produce one calorie of food energy. It’s a challenge of producing more with less.
The other challenge is access. It’s one thing to be producing a lot of food, but if it’s not where the people are, or where the hungry people are, it’s not of any help.
FC: What inspired you to propose “Eat the View” and campaign to get a garden at the White House?
RD: I knew it would have a profound impact on our country, and in my wildest dreams I thought it would ripple outside our nation. We’re an organization that promotes kitchen gardening, doing the most with modest resources. I knew this garden had been proposed in the past, and it had its champions–Alice Waters, Michael Pollan. I came at it from a modest place. I wasn’t a rock star like them, but I thought maybe I could play more of the role of a roadie, making sure the mics are on and the amps are cranked up to make sure other people’s voices were heard. If we could get other people to sing along, maybe we’ll get the message across. That’s what motivated me.
FC: You gathered more than 100,000 signatures and received endless media coverage–why do you think people became so passionate about it?
RD: It’s an idea people have gotten excited about over the years. There’s this level of awareness that we have now that we didn’t have back in the 1990s. We’ve moved ahead as a society in that sense–there are more people aware of the ramifications.
In addition, I’d like to take a little bit of credit for the campaign we ran in that we made it fun, we made it accessible, we made it something people wanted to be a part of. We weren’t trying to hit people over the head with a preachy message about “you should do this, the president should do that.” We made it engaging. And I think the other important factor is, we were ultimately making a request to the Obamas as a first family. And that made a huge difference, because they were open to the idea.
FC: Do you think this will inspire other Americans to think about where their food is coming from?
RD: I think whether you’re coming at it from the left or the right or the center, gardening cuts across a lot of the different boundaries we have in society. It’s not a red state or a blue state issue. It has a lot of potential to influence people. It is part of our past but it’s very much about our future, and I think Americans get that.