Victory Gardens: Now a Misdemeanor

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When it comes to landscaping it may seem what's good enough for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue should be good enough for the working class neighborhoods of America, but Oak Park, a Detroit-area community in Michigan, disagrees.

2011 White House Kitchen Garden

Students from local schools help Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, and First Lady Michelle Obama, plant the 2011 White House Kitchen Garden. 

For the past two years a vegetable garden has graced the South Lawn of the White House -- home to the leader of the free world -- but when Julie Bass, a resident of Oak Park, seized the opportunity to create a productive garden space after sewer work tore up her lawn the mother of six was fined and charged with a misdemeanor for "noncompliance" with a city ordinance. That ordinance says only "suitable" plant materials may occupy lawn space within the city's boundaries. But what is suitable plant material? No official definition exists.

When questioned city officials said that "suitable" meant "common", as in decorative shrubs, bushes and flowers, but is now really the time to be picky about which types of "common" plant materials residents of one of the hardest hit cities in America are planting? Especially if those plant materials are intended to provide a family with sustenance?

2011 White House Kitchen Garden

The Bass residence and Misdemeanor Garden. Photo by Julie Bass.

Detroit has consistently ranked among the top of America's Fastest Dying Cities. The very heart of the country's manufacturing industry, home to the auto giants and blue collar working folks, abandoned and foreclosed homes speckle the landscape giving rise to problems with squatters and vermin infestation. Whole areas of the city have been exposed as ghost towns, wildlife from outside the city limits have taken up residence again and the city has been touted as a model for what America would look like post-apocolypse.

Like most every other city in the state of Michigan Oak Park faces deep budget cuts and looming crisis. Residents are questioning where the city has even found the money to investigate, charge and try a citizen for the petty infraction of growing food in these times, never mind the asinine interpretation of a vague ordinance to begin with. Not only have precious tax dollars already been wasted pursuing the case thus far, Mrs. Bass is scheduled for trial by jury on July 26, 2011 and could face up to 93 days in jail for her "crime".

So, what can you do to get involved? Treehugger offers a helpful list of action items:

1. Email or call officials for the city of Oak Park Mrs. Bass has listed contact information for the mayor, city manager, and other city officials in the sidebar of her blog.

2. "Like" Oak Park Hates Veggies Facebook Page.

3. Spread the word via Facebook and Twitter. By gaining attention to this particular issue, with this particular homeowner, the hope is that other cities will reconsider before they harass another homeowner for something like this.

But I'd like to add two other options:

1. Write the White House. If a veggie garden is good enough for the first family, a veggie garden is good enough for the working class neighborhoods of America. Mrs. Obama has spent her time as First Lady promoting her Lets Move! campaign and the garden is part of that. Now is the time for her to make a real difference. Ask Michelle to get involved on behalf of Mrs. Bass.

2. Get Out. Should the city go forward with the July 26 trial by jury, show up with signs and your voice. Protest the frivolous prosecution of good citizens, the waste of limited government resources. 

This post was originally published at Cultivating the Art of Sustenance

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Diana Prichard authors Cultivating the Art of Sustenance and is the owner of the small farm Olive Hill. She lives in rural Michigan with her husband and two daughters.


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