On March 20, Michelle Obama and a group of elementary school students broke ground on an organic White House garden. Obama and the children used only organic fertilizers and insect repellents, and instead of chemical pesticides, ladybugs and praying mantises are being used to control harmful insect populations. The garden is tied to a healthy school lunch campaign from the secretary of agriculture, but changes for restaurants could be next—and they wouldn't necessarily be law-induced.
“I think any time somebody high profile does something like this, it just helps to normalize it,” says Michael Oshman, executive director of the Green Restaurant Association (GRA). “The more it's perceived as normal, the more people will do it. The more people do it, the more prices will come down. The more people who couldn't afford to do it, now they can afford to do it. It sets off a domino effect.”
Quick-serves are in line to be hit by the organic food bug. Although the movement has been in motion for a while, the number of Americans who buy organic food on a weekly basis currently sits at a 25 percent minority. That number will likely rise as the White House garden gets continued press when its organic produce is served at various Washington, D.C., functions.
“It's a garden, and it's a garden that doesn't use pesticides,” Oshman says. “It's pretty basic. It should kind of create that question of, 'Why can't we do this?'”
Several members of the GRA already offer organic food, including some quick-serves, and Oshman says customers will likely come to expect it more from all restaurants.
“As people are eating at home less and less in terms of a large trend, you start caring more and more about what you're eating out,” he says. “The kitchen's now transported to someone else, and therefore it becomes important to them what they're feeding their kids and themselves.”
And despite the lower price tag of non-organic foods, Oshman says making a switch can be financially beneficial for restaurants. He points to the first 100 percent organic restaurant, a GRA member, as an example. While the owner's food costs are higher than his neighbor's, he has seen success because he attracts a growing base of consumers who specifically seek out organic food.
“He's paying more, but he's also making money because of it,” Oshman says.
However, not everyone is as enamored with the White House’s organic offerings. One group, the Mid America CropLife Association (MACA), sent the First Lady a letter arguing that chemicals are important in crop protection and have been proven scientifically sound. The MACA could not be reached for comment, but Oshman predicts its letter-writing campaign won't impact the issue much.
“[Obama's] probably not going to stop doing it because of letters,” he says. “She's doing it because she believes it's the right thing. Therefore, that's what's going to happen and that's what's going to affect public opinion.”