Roger Doiron (@rogerdoiron) is founder and director of Kitchen Gardeners International (KGI), a Maine-based nonprofit network of over 30,000 individuals from 120 countries who are taking a hands-on approach to (re)localizing the food supply through gardening. In 2007, he was chosen as a W.K. Kellogg Foundation Food and Society Policy Fellow.
Doiron came onto the national scene with his successful proposal and petition campaign to replant a kitchen garden at the White House. The “Eat the View” effort in 2008 gathered over 100,000 signatures, earned national and international media coverage, and was voted the grand prize winner of the “On Day One” contest sponsored by the United Nations Foundation. Doiron’s work on the White House garden campaign also earned him the “Heart of Green” award, recognition as one of the country’s top five “Green Game Changers” by the readers and editors of the Huffington Post, and also a nod as one of the “10 Most Inspiring People in Sustainable Food” by the editors of Fast Company magazine.
He gardens at his own white house in Maine, when it’s not covered in snow.
UC Food Observer caught up with Roger recently for a brief conversation. Here’s what he told us.
Q: Your non-profit, Kitchen Gardeners International, has grown by leaps and bounds in the last few years. Tell us about the organization’s growth, why you think the kitchen garden message is resonating so broadly, and what your hopes are for KGI’s future.
A: We’re definitely riding a wave of kitchen garden interest while trying to create some waves of our own. KGI’s mission is to help more people grow more of their own healthy food. We’ve remained steadfast in that mission over the years but flexible in our methods. We launched initially as an online network of home gardeners interested in exchanging information. From 2008 to 2011, we evolved into a campaigning organization taking on a number of high profile campaigns, most notably the online campaign for replanting a kitchen garden at the White House. Since 2012, we’ve turned our attention to empowering disadvantaged populations to grow their own food through our Sow It Forward garden grants program. Our network now includes 35,000 gardeners who are ready to help in different ways.
Q: It’s a time of great challenge internationally, yet KGI is bridging nations and cultures. Tell us a little about that.
A. We’re living in a time of great conflict, both human vs. human as well as human vs. the planet. Unfortunately, these are fights where there are no winners, only losers who lose less. Gardens have a peace-making role to play in both of these battles. KGI’s been fortunate to partner with gardeners and garden projects that span the globe. Although these projects differ greatly from one place to the next because of the local climate and food culture, they’re more alike than they are different which I find encouraging. Food gardening is a universal activity that has the power to unite people and heal rifts. Similarly, it is also one of the things that can help us heal our unhealthy, combative relationship with the planet. The conservationist, David Brower, liked to say, “There is no business to be done on a dead planet” but much more importantly there’s no living to be done on a dead planet. The soil is filled with living creatures and our well-being and sustenance depend upon it. The more that we put our hands into the soil, the more we understand that we and the planet are in this survival thing together.
Q: When you launched your White House Garden campaign in 2008, did you ever envision that so much would fall out of that work? As we prepare for another presidential election, what food issues would you like the candidates to be talking about?
A: I’d love to say that I had a 10-year master plan or a “subversive plot” as I once called it in a TEDx talk I gave, but my focus was building some short-term buzz for the garden before the Obamas moved into the White House. It just seemed like a very symbolic and do-able idea that could lead to some other good things. First Lady Michelle Obama and Chef Sam Kass are the visionary ones who took a good idea and made it into something great. Looking ahead at the next presidential campaign, I think that food does need to be part of the larger discussion about the future of our country and, indeed, the world. The White House kitchen garden under the First Lady’s leadership has proved to be a very effective platform for talking about healthy food. I’d like to see the next administration continue that and build upon it by opening a larger dialogue about food equality and justice. One effective way of increasing people’s access to good, fresh food is increasing their access to gardens so I’d like to hear the candidates talk about how they would do that.
Q: What are you growing at your White House in Maine?
A: We still have close to two feet of snow on the ground so the only gardens I’m planting for now are the ones in my dreams. Once the snow melts and the soil starts to warm, I’ll be growing everything from apples to zucchini. My wife and I have three ravenous sons living with us so we’re really counting on our garden to feed the hungry masses this summer!
Q: KGI has launched an innovative Sow it Forward effort that is capitalizing new gardening efforts. Are there specific projects you’d like to tell us about? What is inspiring you most about this work? How can others help?
A: I’m so excited about all 440 of our projects that it’s hard to single any out. We just finished sending out our latest and largest round of grants ever, 200 in all. Those grants are currently crisscrossing the country and globe. A few projects that do come to mind are ones where geography plays a dramatic role. For example, there’s a community garden being grown in La Paz, Bolivia, at 12,000 feet above sea level which is breathtaking in every sense of the word.
Here in Maine – which is 90% forested – we’re supporting a permaculture demonstration garden planted at the forest-edge. The project will produce a lot of good food for people in need, but will also grow a new body of knowledge about how we can live sustainably and happily on the natural landscapes we have without destroying them. What inspires me the most about these various gardens and what comforts me in my moments of doubt about the world is that the vast majority of these projects are volunteer-led. There are truly heroes and garden angels living in our midst who are making these projects happen in the most challenging of conditions. They’re amazing people, but they do need help with everything from weeding and watering to finances and fundraising. I would encourage everyone to seek out a garden project in his or her area and find out what type of help is needed most.
Q: The title of your latest talk is “Gardening Our Way Back to the Future.” What would you like gardeners – or aspiring gardeners – to know about this?
A: It’s the title of a talk but also a hat-tip to “Back to the Future” which was one of my favorite movies as a teen and which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. If you’re not familiar with the movie, the main character, Marty McFly – played by Michael J. Fox – travels 30 years into the past to 1955 and later 30 years into the future to 2015 in a time machine built by a mad scientist friend of his. He travels back into the past in order to create a better future for himself and his family. The main gist of my talk is that food gardens are like time machines too in that they connect us with our gardening past while offering a bridge to a brighter, healthier future.
Q: I’m giving you a super power. You can change one thing about the food system with that super power. What change would you make?
A: What a great question and what an awesome responsibility! I would go back to the issue of access and use my power to give every person easy access to a garden plot to call their own. It could be at school, at work or someplace close in their neighborhood. I think millions of people would take advantage of it to grow healthy food for themselves and their loved ones. I also believe that it could help launch a new generation of food and garden entrepreneurs. Many of the newest vendors at farmers markets across the country are growing and producing food on a small scale. Oh, and while you’re granting powers, I’d also like to be able to fly Superman-style for one day. There are a few gardens I’d love to visit!