- Posted By: Rose Hayden-Smith
- Written by: Rose Hayden-Smith
Yesterday, I moderated a panel on urban agriculture at the annual meeting of the California Planning Association, which was held in Santa Barbara. The room was packed: urban agriculture is a hot topic these days. Micro-farms, backyard chickens, bee keeping, raw food markets all present challenges – and opportunities - for planners and communities. In our discussions yesterday, the idea of “scale” and definition came up frequently. The consensus of the panel? Within urban areas, urban agriculture should encompass everything from backyard gardens to commercial agricultural operations.
In practice, urban agriculture has been a persistent and organized activity in urban areas for well over a century. And one could argue that places like The Common in Boston make “urban” agriculture” an even older model. Farming on the urban fringe has long been a feature of American life. Farmers markets are not a new feature of American life; they represent one of the oldest models of food distribution…from farmer direct to consumer.
The Panic of 1893, an economic downturn that brought distress to both urban and rural populations, was particularly difficult on Americans; there were few social safety nets for the poor and destitute. (Programs like Social Security and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – food stamps – came much, much later). The Panic of 1893 created a dangerous social climate in America, particularly in urban areas teeming with unemployed factory workers. The crisis brought to the fore a model of relief gardening that quickly took hold across the United States. The “Potato Patch Farms” model, also called the “Detroit Experiment,” emerged under the leadership of Detroit’s mayor, Hazen Pingree. Pingree’s model connected hundreds of acres of vacant land in Detroit with unemployed workers and their families, who were provided with the materials, tools and education to garden the unused land. This was done in a systematic fashion. Pingree’s idea of ethical relief was met with strong resistance from many who believed that the unemployed – many of them immigrants – were too lazy to work. Skeptics, of course, were wrong: 3,000 families applied for the 975 allotments available the first year of the program (1894). The program grew during the next two seasons (1,546 families participated in 1895, 1,701 families gardened in 1896).
The city’s agricultural committee kept records of the investments made into the program and the value of crops harvested. In 1896, the value of food produced in Detroit’s potato patches was greater than the money provided to needy citizens by the “poor commission.”
The idea quickly spread to other urban areas: New York City, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Boston and Seattle were among the nineteen cities sponsoring vacant lot projects on some scale according to an 1898 report. The model Pingree developed in Detroit was particularly innovative and visionary for its time; by the early 1900s, there was a national vacant lot cultivation organization that encouraged urban agriculture and city garden. These programs clearly provided a rationale for the cultivation of vacant lots – “slacker land” - during the Liberty/Victory Garden effort in World War I.
To this historian, today’s economic climate feels quite a lot like 1893. And urban agriculture is once again coming to the fore as a viable, necessary and welcome addition to the food landscape. Detroit and many, many other urban areas, faced with issues created by depopulation, high unemployment, food deserts and other enormous challenges, are again looking at urban agriculture to provide solutions. I applaud the dozens of planning professionals who attended this session, engaging in iterative discussions with panelists and other participants. They will play a vital role in creating public policies that support healthy and resilient food systems in our communities, and which acknowledge that increasingly, communities want explicit connections with their food.
- Posted By: Rose Hayden-Smith
- Written by: Rose Hayden-Smith
In 1909, Ventura schoolteacher Zilda M. Rogers wrote to the Agricultural Experiment Station at the University of California, Berkeley, then the flagship agricultural campus for California’s land grant institution, and a primary proponent and provider of garden education resources for schoolteachers. Rogers wrote in some detail about how her school garden work had progressed, what the successes and failures were, how the children were responding to the opportunity to garden, how her relationship with the children had changed as a result of the garden work, and what she saw as potential for the future.
“With the love of the school garden has grown the desire for a home garden and some of their plots at home are very good. . . . Since commencing the garden work the children have become better companions and friend . . . and to feel that there is a right way of doing everything. . . . It is our garden. . . . We try to carry that spirit into our schoolroom.”
More than 100 years after Rogers wrote those words, school gardens have continued to be cherished in the public school system in which she worked. The Ventura Unified School District has developed a nationally recognized model that links school gardening, nutrition education and a farm-to-school lunch program featuring many locally sourced fruits and vegetables for its 17,000 public school students.
The University of California took note of the success that educators like Rogers were experiencing with school gardens. Being certain to include the words written by her, the University of California published Circular No. 46, which offered information about how to build school garden programs. School gardens were to be an integral part of primary schooling. As the circular declared, “The school garden has come to stay.”
School gardens had been used in parts of Europe as early as 1811, and mention of their value preceded that by nearly two centuries. Philosophers and educational reformers such as John Amos Comenius and Jean-Jacques Rousseau discussed the importance of nature in the education of children; Comenius mentioned gardens specifically.
The use and purpose of school gardens was multifold; gardens provided a place where youth could learn natural sciences (including agriculture) and also acquire vocational skills. Indeed, the very multiplicity of uses and purposes for gardens made it difficult for gardening proponents to firmly anchor gardening in the educational framework and a school’s curriculum. It still does.
The founder of the kindergarten movement, Friedrich Froebel, used gardens as an educational tool. Froebel was influenced by Swiss educational reformer Johann Pestalozzi, who saw a need for balance in education, a balance that incorporated “hands, heart, and head,” words and ideas that would be incorporated nearly two centuries later into the mission of the United States Department of Agriculture’s 4-H youth development program. (These words still guide the work of the University of California’s 4-H program). Educational leaders such as Liberty Hyde Bailey and John Dewey fused ideas of nature study and experiential education with gardening.
Perhaps one of the earliest school garden programs in the United States was developed in 1891, at the George Putnam School in Roxbury, Mass. (Today, the nationally recognized Food Project also teaches youth about gardening and urban agriculture in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston). Like others interested in gardening, Henry Lincoln Clapp, who was affiliated with the George Putnam School, traveled to Europe for inspiration. After traveling to Europe and visiting school gardens there, he partnered with the Massachusetts Horticultural Society to create the garden at Putnam; the model was replicated around the state. It was followed in relatively short order by other efforts, including a well-known garden program in New York City: the DeWitt Clinton Farm School.
Gardening became nearly a national craze during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era and “school” gardens enjoyed immense popularity. The United States Department of Agriculture estimated that there were more than 75,000 school gardens by 1906. As their popularity soared, advocates busily supplied a body of literature about school gardening and agricultural education.
One book argued that school gardens were not a “new phase of education,” but rather, an “old one” that was gaining merit for its ability to accomplish a wide variety of needs. School gardens were a way to reconnect urbanized American youth with their agrarian, producer heritage, the Jeffersonian idea of the sturdy yeoman farmer. One author argued for the importance of gardening education and nature study for both urban and rural youth, for “sociological and economic” reasons.
One important reason to garden with urban youth was to teach “children to become producers as well as consumers,” and for the possibility “of turning the tide of population toward the country, thus relieving the crowded conditions of the city.” Other reformers echoed this idea, including Jacob Riis, who said, “The children as well as the grown people were ‘inspired to greater industry and self-dependence.’ They faced about and looked away from the slum toward the country.” It’s now more than a century later, the average American farmer is in his/her late 50s, and the need to reconnect a new generation of youth to the land seems even more compelling. Could the school gardens of today provide the farmers of tomorrow?
The school garden movement received a huge boost during World War I, when the Federal Bureau of Education introduced the United States School Garden Army. During the interwar years and the Great Depression, youth participated in relief gardening. During World War II, a second Victory Garden program swept the nation, but after that, school garden efforts became the exception, not the norm.
The 1970s environmental movement brought renewed interest to the idea of school and youth gardening, and another period of intense growth began in the early 1990s. Interest in farm-to-school has continued to breathe life into the school garden movement, and some states, notably California, have developed legislation to encourage school gardens. (Under the tenure of State Education superintendent Delaine Eastin, a Garden in Every School program was begun. Under Jack O’Connell’s tenure, Assembly Bill 1535, which funded school gardens, was approved).
We should all take note of the tagline for the U.S. government’s youth gardening program in World War I: “A Garden for Every Child. Every Child in a Garden.” Wouldn’t this be a great idea today? With the cuts in school funding, increased classroom size and other challenges, some school garden programs are facing real challenges. They deserve our support, not only in practice (volunteer!) but also by our advocacy for public policies that support youth gardening work in school and community settings. Why not advocate for a nationally mandated curriculum that promotes food systems education in American public schools, something like “Race to the Crop”?
Some of the best models for school gardens lie in our past. But the real potential of school gardens to reduce obesity, encourage a healthy lifestyle, reconnect youth with the food system and to build healthier, vibrant communities is something we can realize today . . . and is something that should be an important concern of our national public policy.
A note to readers: Google Books contains copies of two important books in the school gardening literature of the Progressive Era, (Miller and Greene’s), as well as numerous other Progressive era books pertaining to gardening and agricultural education. To learn more about the United States School Garden Army’s efforts during WWI (a GREAT model for a national curriculum today!), visit theUC Victory Grower website.
This week, UC’s Agricultural Sustainability Institute has provided opportunities for a wide range of individuals working within the food system to connect with on-the-ground projects. I had the privilege of visiting Grant Union High School’s GEO Environmental and Design Academy, which includes a gardening and cooking program. (Students learn about environmental horticulture, design and science. The interdisciplinary program also provides literature experiences that focus on food systems issues. They also learn about healthy nutrition and cooking, which is linked to the state-mandated health curriculum). I’ve admired the work of Ann Marie Kennedy, who teaches in the program, for a long time, and I leapt at the opportunity to meet her and visit with students participating in the program.
Grant Union High School is an urban high school located in Sacramento. The school is in an economically challenged area, and approximately 50% of its students are English language learners. It is a diverse student population that reflects the diversity of California and the nation. It is known statewide for the success of its football program but it’s also known across the United States for its garden and Garden Café program.
Ann Marie said something interesting about the students enrolled in the program: “They are disconnected from agriculture, but they are not disconnected from food.”
My experience at Grant proved that thesis, and mirrored the students’ lesson for that day. First we discussed agreements (safety, respect, learning from others, participating). We were asked to identify vegetables, and then given the task of harvesting specific vegetables from the garden. The model for garden management has provided a good portion of the program’s sustainability in the last ten years. It is essentially a shared school and community garden, which I believe is one of the best models for school garden sustainability. Community gardeners have individual plots, but assist in the school garden areas. Some of the community gardeners have children or grandchildren enrolled at Grant, but others are connected to the school simply through their love of gardening and the opportunity to cultivate food.
After we harvested the vegetables, we came inside. We also received lessons taught by a student, Adrian, and a former student who now serves as a mentor, Ja Thor. Adrian taught us about knife and cutting safety (absolutely one of the best kitchen demonstrations I’ve ever seen). Ja explained how the color-coded cutting boards worked, exploring the concept of food cross-contamination with us.
The visitors worked alongside the students to wash and chop the vegetables and prepare lunch in the wonderful kitchen, which was funded by a grant from Kaiser. While some cooked, others set the communal table or washed dishes. When lunch was ready, we sat down and ate a healthy chicken and vegetable chow mien with a garden-fresh salad loaded with extras, like fruit. We were also given the opportunity to sample Grant’s salsa, which is sold commercially, and provides a real-life business incubator for seniors enrolled in the program.
The lunch was, simply, amazing. Not only the food, but the chance to speak with students and learn about how the program has influenced their lives. All of them expressed that they have appreciated the opportunities for leadership that the program provides. (And in fact, the onsite program manager, Fatima Malik, who works for the Health Education Council in partnership with Grant High School, is a graduate of the program. She went on to study nutrition at UC Davis, and is now working at Grant. The program is also “staffed” by student volunteers from UC Davis. Students enrolled in the program have opportunities to serve as leaders in various capacities. The entire program provided a superb example of nested leadership and mentoring opportunities for youth).
The students also noted that they are eating more fruits and vegetables. Some of them are primary shoppers and food preparers in their families, and the result is that their families are also consuming healthier foods. Nearly all of the students related taking what they had learned in the classroom home, and shared with pride anecdotes about cooking for family members, including parents and grandparents. They expressed that the program provides a new way for them to look at what they do at home. Each said that participation in the program has helped them build relationships, and that they find acceptance in the program.
After lunch, each visitor had an opportunity to sit with students and ponder several reflection questions. I asked students what they wanted people to know. One student said we need to consider the value of buying local. Another wanted to share the health benefits of fruits and vegetable consumption. Yet another student wanted people to know that fruits and vegetables “aren’t nasty if you make them right.” (This same student told me he likes fruits more than vegetables, but aspires “to travel the world to find a veggie to fall in love with.”)
You can learn more about the program by reading this newspaper article, which appears in the Davis Enterprise.
I left my visit with an enormous sense of gratitude for the work of staff at Grant Union High (particularly Ann Marie and Fatima). I also left with a profound sense of awe for the students whom I spent half a day with. I have a great deal of confidence and hope in a future that includes their leadership.
But I also left with the idea that this exceptional program ought not to be the exception, but rather, the norm. If we are truly committed to a healthy future and a healthy nation, we need upstream programs like this, that provide opportunities for youth engagement with soil, healthy food, and mentors who will encourage their leadersh
I collect gardening catalogs. To me, they represent life and productivity and the promise of family, good food and good health. They also provide a link to a simpler, agrarian past that I find comforting and restorative in these unsettling times. In a world where oil gushes unabated into the Gulf of Mexico, violence seems unchecked, compassion towards the less fortunate seems to have evaporated and economic misery abounds, I find gardening catalogs a refuge of optimism. We need fewer bad things in this world and more good gardens.
I’ve spent more time this year sitting in the chair in my garden, thinking about what this small cultivated area says about these times, this world and my life. I’ve resisted buying many seeds this year; like others, the economy gives me jitters. Not that I’m without hope about the economy or the potential of gardens in this current presidential administration. Especially the latter, as the residents of the White House look favorably on sustainable and local food systems. Like our family, the first family has a garden on the front lawn. What’s more affirming than a front yard garden in hard times like these?
In hard times, Americans have always turned to gardening.
The Victory Gardens of World War I and World War II - and the garden efforts of the Great Depression - helped Americans weather hard times. These gardens helped the family budget; improved dietary practices; reduced the food mile and saved fuel; enabled America to export more food to our allies; beautified communities; empowered every citizen to contribute to a national effort; and bridged social, ethnic, class and cultural differences during times when cooperation was vital. Gardens were an expression of solidarity, patriotism, and shared sacrifice. They were everywhere...schools, homes, workplaces, and throughout public spaces all over the nation. No effort was too small. Americans did their bit. And it mattered.
Consider this: In WWI, the Federal Bureau of Education rolled out a national school garden program and funded it with War Department monies. Millions of students gardened at school, at home, and in their communities. A national Liberty Garden (later Victory Garden) program was initiated that called on all Americans to garden for the nation and the world. The success of home gardeners (and careful food preservation) helped the U.S. increase exports to our starving European Allies.
The WWII experience was equally successful. During 1943, some polls reported that 3/5ths of Americans were gardening, including Vice President Henry Wallace, who gardened with his son. That same year, according to some estimates, nearly 40% of the fresh fruits and vegetables consumed stateside were grown in school, home and community gardens. In addition to providing much-needed food, gardening helped Americans unite around a positive activity. Gardens gave all Americans a way to provide service to the nation, enabling citizens on the homefront to make significant contributions to the war effort.
Our nation again finds itself in challenging times. School, home and community gardens provide a way to respond positively to this period of uncertainty and change.
Will you do your bit?
Today has been a blur. Woke up early, dressed carefully and ate breakfast while we discussed a morning meeting with Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan and pinned down details about our White House visit.
Because it’s late and has been an amazingly long day, I’m mostly going to share about our visit to the White House garden. After attending a meeting at the USDA – and again visiting one my favorite gardens, the People’s Garden – our group walked over to the White House. We took a group picture on the north side of the White House, and then walked over to the south side for a group picture. You can see the White House kitchen garden from there, but it’s not a close view.
After waiting for a bit, we went through security screening. Our instructions were clear. No bags, no pictures, only what you could carry in your pocket. Neither my dress or cardigan had pockets, so I tucked my picture ID, some cash and my business cards in my shoe. (I know, I know). After we passed through security, we entered an atrium type area, where a member of the security staff provided very interesting answers to our questions about White House history, the First Family, the garden, etc. The staff person confirmed that in fact, Mrs. Obama is often in the garden.
Then, Assistant White House chef Sam Kass arrived. Kass came with the Obama family from Chicago to work in Washington, and has been instrumental in the White House kitchen garden project. Clearly, Kass is also driving pieces of the emerging White House food initiatives. He introduced himself to each of us personally, and shook everyone’s hand. We were then escorted outside across the lawn to the garden.
Kass shared a great deal of information about the garden. It’s not a huge garden, but has already produced several hundred pounds of food. Food from this garden is used by the First Family, has been served at official functions, and has also been donated to a local food bank.
Kass allowed us to sample tomatoes from the garden. They were warm from sunshine, and popped with flavor. Many of the plants being cultivated are heirloom varieties, and much of the garden philosophy – and plant material – is driven by one of our founding farmer fathers, Thomas Jefferson. A small plaque in the garden provides a Jefferson quote. Broccoli, lettuce, cabbage, tomatoes, herbs, sweet potatoes…and more, including a fig planted among mint. I rubbed the mint leaves and then smelled my fingers…amazing.
The garden is very well-tended…it has to be. There are many visitors. But…it looks achievable. There is also a weather station, and a bee hive, where honey has been collected.
Kass answered nearly every question we asked him thoroughly and thoughtfully. We were not permitted to take pictures.
I deeply appreciate that the First Family is modeling good health and eating by initiating this effort, and maintaining this kitchen garden. I value that the First Lady has school children come to visit the garden to learn. I love that the food produced is consumed by the family, and that some portion goes to less fortunate families. I love the contributions that Sam Kass, with his dynamic nature and good food ideas, has made to upping the status of gardening in our nation today. Thank you all for taking this important step.
Several blocks away, the USDA People’s Garden sends equally positive messages. Sited on the national mall, this garden is a first. Like the White House garden, it sends important messages to thousands of people each day about gardening, healthy eating, and the right use of civic space. A garden on the national mall…sacred space used for a civic purpose.
A special thanks again to my dear friend and fellow Fellow Roger Doiron, whose work promoting the idea of a White House garden really made this visit possible for us. Today was the culmination of a dream for Roger. It was also his birthday, and we sang the traditional birthday song to him as we stood in the White House garden, together, celebrating this special day.
Tonight, well over a hundred people gathered to learn about and discuss the food system. Each fellow was asked to make brief remarks about their work. Here’s what I shared:
“We were a nation of farmers at formation. We are a nation of farmers still, at heart. This is demonstrated by the garden revolution sweeping the nation. Seven million new gardeners this year. Seven million.
Yesterday, and again this morning, I visited the People’s Garden at the USDA. This garden is on the National Mall. Sacred space. I also visited the First Family’s garden at the White House. Both experiences were profoundly moving.
Last night, President Obama told the nation it is a “season of action.”
He is right. It is a season of action: it is time to move these initiatives out across the nation, to begin a NEW American revolution. A revolution that will create a garden in every school, every home, every community, and every workplace across the nation.”
- Breakfast meeting with Fellows to plan next steps.
- Giving talk on the Garden Revolution at U.S. Botanic Garden.
- Meeting with Christine Flanagan, U.S. Botanic Garden.
- Meeting with one of my favorite WWI historians, Elaine Weiss.
- Go to airport, blog like crazy, board plane, fly back to Oxnard via LAX.
- If no flight delays or issues, arrive home between 12:30 and 1:00 a.m.
Random Observations: During our visit, we saw the White House basketball court/tennis court. We also saw the First Dog, Bo, on the south lawn of the White House. We were far away, but it was clearly Bo.