I'm writing a quick note on my lunch break about one of my favorite UCCE Master Gardeners, Vance Askew, who passed away last week. Vance, a resident of midtown (and my around-the-corner neighbor) was a fixture at the Loma Vista Elementary gardening projects I ran for six years, the older gentleman with the healthy tan, great attitude and amazing head of hair. If your child attended Loma Vista with Natalie, he/she met and worked with Vance. (He always broke the safety rule about closed toe shoes and wore sandals).
I first encountered Vance, a former Navy pilot, on my evening walks around Anacapa Estates, in 1990. He was often out gardening, and just very friendly. Our friendship developed when I moved from UCSB to the UCCE office in 1992. Vance was a UCCE Master Gardener, and a fixture in the CE Office.
Vance was a frequent visitor in our home, and I was in his home often, mostly in his wonderful backyard, admiring his ability to green the world. When Natalie was born, Vance was an honorary grandfather; remembering birthdays with things pink and Barbie. Vance and Bill shared a strong affinity, as well, comparing notes about orchids and other things they liked to grow. Vance always left bags of things from his garden and yard on our step; he was our first experience with a CSA! His grapefruit was especially impressive.
We shared common interests as gardening enthusiasts and neighbors, including a commitment to our neighborhood school. So I enlisted Vance for practical and moral support when I decided to start a weekly garden program at Loma Vista Elementary School when Natalie was in kindergarten (I continued this program for six years, and it was one of the most rewarding activities I've ever done. I miss it tremendously). Gardening days would inevitably induce panic...there were a lot of kids, and managing lots of kids in a garden can be challenging. What I'd planned would seem woefully inadequate. I'd call Vance, and he'd ALWAYS say: "Never Fear! The Master Gardener Is Here!" And I would be assured and confident. And his beat up old gold truck (still in front of his house) would appear at either my house or Loma Vista and away we'd go.
Each year, Vance helped us rototill the school beds, and would also help out at individual sessions. Along the way he remarried, and his childhood friend and new wife, Marva, sometimes came out to help us at Loma Vista as well. His health began to really decline a couple of years ago. Bill and I bought our own rototiller and turned the beds for Mrs. Oeschner's 4th grade garden, and I rototilled the beds for Mr. Peterson's 5th grade class garden all on my own. I gardened mostly on my own those last two years, but Vance was a presence that buoyed my confidence as I began to develop my own style as a garden educator.
Recently, Vance had split his time between Marva's home in Pacific Grove and his house on San Roque. He died up north; his memorial service will be at St. Paul's Episcopal Church (in midtown, across from the Ventura County Medical Center) at 1:00 p.m. on Saturday, January 24th, with Fr. Jerome Kahler officiating. As Vance was a lifetime member of our local Master Gardener program, I expect that there will be lots of gardening volunteers in attendance.
Vance led a long and incredibly full life. I'm saddened by his passing. I will miss him immensely. But Vance would argue that death is part of the essential nature of any garden, of any life. Renewal requires a death of some sort, whether physical, or simply the loss of a dream, a relationship, a potential. There is a season for everything. We go on, taking from our experiences - perhaps, especially, the painful ones - the lessons that will inform our journey, and the memories that keep us connected to what has passed.
Ironically, as I've moved onto a larger stage in my efforts to encourage a revival of school, home and community gardening in America, I've had less time to tend to my own gardening efforts. This weekend, I hope to get something in, something simple, maybe evoking the first projects we did with a Loma Vista kindergarten class in recycled avocado bins.
Never Fear. The Master Gardener is Here!
"A Garden for Everyone. Everyone in a Garden."
The fires that raged through Southern California less than two weeks ago affected thousands of residents and destroyed hundreds of homes. California is bone dry, the result of an extended drought. Our building patterns put thousands of homes in the canyons and hills at greatest risk for burning. We have fires more frequently these days - fire season now seems to be year round - and they seem to burn more intensely and cause greater damage.
One of the places destroyed in the Tea Fire that raged through the coastal area of Montecito and Santa Barbara was Mount Calvary, a Monastery and Retreat House operated by monks affiliated with the Order of the Holy Cross. The Brothers at Mount Calvary are Anglican; our mutual faith brought me to their Retreat House a number of times in the last seventeen years. It doesn't seem right to refer to Mount Calvary as simply a place; it was much more than a collection of buildings. It was - and remains - a community of people; a community that fire cannot destroy.
A central feature of life at Mount Calvary has been hospitality. The community hosts individuals and groups for retreats, for programs, and accomodates those simply seeking quiet time that supports reflection and study. Good Food has been a key part of the hospitality that the Brothers provide. Fresh-baked bread, and coffee so wonderful - a Monk's Blend - that it became a small commercial venture that supported the Brother's mission and work. Simple, wholesome, carefully prepared food, offered with grace and love, food that fed the body and the soul. I have met pilgrims there from all sorts of places and life circumstances, and have shared Good Food with them in the sunny dining room.
I remember vividly a weekend that I spent in retreat there with the vestry of St. Paul's Episcopal Church. It was February of 1996, and I was within six weeks of delivering my daughter, Natalie. While extremely excited about her impending birth, I was uncomfortable in the advanced stages of pregnancy. I was moving slowly, wasn't sleeping terribly well, and as full as I was of baby, I couldn't seem to eat much. That weekend, I slept better than I had in weeks. The food was wonderful and I ate it all: breakfast, dinner and supper. I went home fed on many levels.
The Brothers from Mount Calvary are currently staying with the Sisters at St. Mary's Retreat House, also an Episcopal religious community that I have visited. Neighbors across the canyon, St. Mary's was also threatened by the fire, but survived. Will Mount Calvary be rebuilt? The Brothers are in a process of discernment to determine what their future will hold.
Another passing this week also brought up memories of Good Food. Sheri Rudd Klittich Johnson, a valued colleague from the University of California, passed away from ovarian cancer and scleroderma, one day after her 53rd birthday. For many years, Sheri provided leadership for UC's Hansen Trust, and worked diligently to sustain agriculture in Ventura County. She played a vital role in California's school garden movement, and trained hundreds of teachers about agriculture and gardening. I not only loved working with her, I loved and valued her. She will be missed by so many of us.
I have eaten a number of meals with Sheri over the years, including the best meal I've ever had. It was in the summer of 2005, when Sheri and I, accompanied by our daughters Kristen and Natalie, and a friend named Sara, took a road trip to find local and sustainable food systems, see gardens, and learn everything we could that might inform the work at UC's Hansen Agricultural Center. We began in Philadelphia (with Sheri's suitcase taking an unfortunate detour to the Netherlands), toured through southeastern Pennsylvania (including Rodale), drove to upstate New York, visited Cornell, got wet at Niagara Falls, and then drove into Toronto before flying back home. This sustainable food systems road trip found us visiting gardens and farms every day, sometimes several in a single day. The best Good Food meal was shared at Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca. I will never forget it. It was a magical evening in a memorable string of days.
As Thanksgiving approaches, I try not to ponder loss, but rather, to embrace the gifts that the Brothers at Mount Calvary and Sheri have left. And to give fervent thanks for these memories of Good Food and Good Friends.
"A Garden for Everyone. Everyone in a Garden."
Like thousands of other schools across the nation, Cabrillo Middle School opened its doors last week. The return to school presents challenges, including busier schedules. But it also provides an opportunity to rethink food choices and particularly, school lunches.
Here in Ventura, we live in the best of worlds. Our school district has farm-fresh salad bars in each of its seventeen schools. In addition, we live in an area that produces fruits and vegetables year round. Simply drive a couple of miles from mid-town Ventura, and you're at a farmer's stand; we also have two great farmers markets, one during the week. In addition, we have several excellent Community Supported/Sustained Agricultural (CSA) options.
My daughter, Natalie, has always liked to take her lunch to school. Last year, she expressed concern about the amount of trash generated in the typical school lunch. Together, we found plastic bento boxes on line, and have happily used those. This year, Natalie's work with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation has provided a different focus for her: ways to create appealing, satisfying and healthful lunches. In the past, Natalie has been mostly content to let me pack her lunch; now, she wants to be intimately involved in the process. The seemingly simple act of lunch-making has provided daily opportunities to discuss nutrition, menu-planning, decision-making and a whole range of social justice issues around food.
Some wonderful items made their way into Natalie's lunchbox last week. Using produce from our CSA box, she crafted delicate cucumber sandwiches for the first day back at school. They were so wonderful that as an encore, she made them for us to have as a snack with a cup of tea later that day. It was a treat to have my child, now taller than me, take such care to create something healthy and delicious for us to eat together.
I'm not the only one with school lunches on my mind. In mid-September, I'll be traveling to Portland, Oregon to participate in a gathering of other professionals from the western United States who are also concerned about school lunches. Hosted by EcoTrust, this Assembly will focus on making positive changes in the school food environment. Not just for our own children, but for the children in the communities in which we live.
Today's world is full of extremes. There is an epidemic of childhood obesity in our country that has long-term consequences for our health system and our economy. Too much food in some cases, and not the right kinds of food. (My last blog entry discusses some issues relating to childhood obesity in Los Angeles County).
In contrast, today's Los Angeles Times features an article about India's crisis: childhood malnutrition. According to the article, half of that nation's youngest children are malnourished, with entirely inadequate access to a proper amount and - in many cases - the proper kinds of food. The figures in the article - and the implications for all of us - are staggering. In some ways, the situation seems hopeless. There is simply not the collective will to solve these problems.
As I plan a week's lunches with my daughter, we're faced with many decisions about what to eat. We have the luxury to be able to make choices, hopefully, most of them responsible.
And it makes me realize that one of the ways to solve the large, seemingly intractable problems that plague our world is to take small and deliberate actions to improve the territory in our immediate vicinity. Pack a nutritious meal for the children in your care. Become more informed about childhood nutrition and food policy (a great blog on this topic, Caroline's Lunchbox, is written by Dr. Betty Izumi). If you want mostly healthy snack ideas from a 12 year old, visit http://natalies12.wordpress.com/).
In your community, lobby for a healthier food environment in schools and in youth organizations. If it's your turn to bring a snack, skip the cupcakes and provide fruit. At the national level, write your political leaders and request more funding for fruits and vegetables in federally-supported nutrition programs. And request more aid to help other nations in food crisis...because the food security of all children is of vital importance to our collective future as citizens of the world.
And consider being really upstream in your thinking by producing some of what you eat. Participate in a gardening effort, whether at home, at a local school or someplace in the community. While your gardening efforts may seem small and insignificant, they may provide something miraculous for a child's lunchbox, and in the process, may also feed your soul.
"A Garden for Everyone. Everyone in a Garden."
Some weeks are harder than others. This week, I found myself continuously distracted and saddened by the closure of my favorite independent bookstore, Adventures for Kids (AFK). Located in midtown Ventura, AFK simply became unable to compete against megabooksellers (online and retail), and a lackluster economy.
Even before I became a parent, I was a loyal customer. AFK is a two block walk from my house, just down the street and through the alley, and into their back door. I knew many of the people who worked there well, through my professional work, church and other community activities. Those who worked at AFK usually did so on a part-time basis: in their other lives, they were journalists who wrote about books and writing, school teachers, college professors and school librarians. They love and breathe books in the same way we do.
The day my pregnancy was confirmed nearly thirteen years ago, the first place I stopped on my way home from the doctor's office was AFK, where I purchased a Sandra Boynton book. After years of purchasing books for expectant friends at AFK, I was eager to begin a book collection for my own child. And collect we did; over the years, we purchased dozens and dozens and dozens and dozens and dozens of books at AFK. Some months, especially when I was earning a Masters in Education at UCSB, a significant portion of my paycheck was spent there. Those months, we ate modestly, but I was fed by re-engaging the literature of my youth, and in turn, sharing it with others.
From an early, early age, Natalie played in the store; she attended book readings there; she learned about science in messy, hands-on and fun ways in AFK's back parking lot; and she made friends, not just kids, but adults. Sticky fingers were welcomed, touch anything, sit and read, play...it was a great place for a busy toddler and a sometimes stressed mom. JK Rowling signed a couple of Harry Potter books for us at AFK...imagine an author with that degree of commerical success coming to small Ventura, to a humble bookstore. A humble bookstore, but a place so central to the community. And come the authors did, and we amassed an enviable collection of signed books.
In the last couple of years, Natalie befriended the store's new owner, Barbara O'Grady, who frequently solicited her opinion on books. She attended writing seminars there, working with a group of other literature-minded kids at a table in the middle of the store. In the last year, Natalie was permitted to walk to AFK alone with her friend, Mallory. Invariably, they'd pool their money and come home with an armful of books to be shared. This week, they repeated the ritual, but it was a sad and final act.
Barbara, who was known to us in her previous career as the person responsible for the not-just-your-ordinary-company-cafeteria at Patagonia, talked to Natalie, just talked, book lover to book lover. And Natalie would always want to go visit her good friend Geoff Godfrey, a retired school teacher and the husband of Marilyn Godfrey (whose work on the Ventura Unified School District's Healthy Schools Project I've blogged about before). These are good people: a few months ago, the store hosted a talent show organized by Natalie's friend Matthew that raised enough money to purchase malaria nets for 30 African families. The talent was a line-up of mostly sixth grade friends from Cabrillo Middle School. On a Sunday afternoon, more than a hundred of us crowded into AFK, marveled at the growth of our kids, and experienced real community.
A huge Harry Potter fan, I visited the store one year at midnight in my pajamas and bathrobe to get my copy of the latest HP adventure. The store was packed, even at midnight, but no one spared a second glance for the middle-aged woman in the fuzzy green bathrobe. I stayed up all night reading that book.
So, I blog about sustainable food systems and gardening...what's the link with the increasingly common story of a locally owned business going under? Well, there are many links. The folks at AFK partnered with us to promote literature that supported the notion of agricultural literacy. They sponsored book showcases of important literature related to this topic when we had our teacher trainings. Their adult section contained excellent titles about sustainable food systems. And several of those who worked there have been involved in gardening, nutrition education and sustainable food systems activities in our community. Book lovers and gardeners have lots in common. Book lovers till the mind and feed the heart; gardeners till the soil and feed the soul.
So I've been in a funk this week. My husband, Bill, and I talked about the changed landscape of our midtown neighborhood, of all the stores and businesses dear to us that have disappeared in the last twenty-one years we've lived here. About the people who've worked in those businesses, or owned those businesses - some of them neighbors, like Barbara - and how our lives intersect with them, and how their inability to thrive in this economy threatens all of us. Today, I got my hair cut at the salon that has shared the building with AFK, this salon owned by a friend who lives two blocks away. The sadness lingered there, too, and the uncertainty: could the space be rented? What might come in? Would it be a locally-owned business that could be integrated into our neighborhood?
When we don't patronize local business they go away. Local businesses include farmers. Sometimes even when we do patronize them, they can't compete against mega-businesses. And now, more than ever, eating locally seems to be even more important, an antidote to what's occuring.
"A Garden for Everyone. Everyone in a Garden."
Reaching youth with a healthy lifestyle message is vital. A healthy lifestyle incorporates proper eating, physical activity AND gardening. Educating youth about a healthy lifestyle is especially critical today: nearly one in three U.S. youth are obese. Using youth to reach youth with the healthy lifestyle message is essential to its success. Thankfully, there is an organization that is trying to do this in a big way.
Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to Kansas City, Missouri with my daughter, Natalie, so that she could participate in a special meeting. The opportunity was offered by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, which is a collaboration between the William J. Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association. The Alliance has recently selected twenty youth between the ages of 8 and 17 to serve as its youth advisory board, and to act as spokespersons for the issue of childhood obesity. The youth are from all across the nation, and have diverse interests, talents, life stories and goals. But they share one ambition: to help all youth lead a healthier lifestyle. They gathered in nearly the literal center of the nation - Kansas City, Missouri - to tackle one of the most serious issues facing youth: obesity.*
When we arrived in Kansas City after a long day of travel, we didn't know what to expect. We went down to the pool to meet the youth and their parents. Within minutes, the kids were friends. Since they've left Kansas City, they have been in constant contact via email, text messaging, phone and Facebook, sharing ideas, resources and energy. Each is commited to making a difference in their community. Together, they hope to make a difference nationally. After meeting them, I believe they will. They are already spreading out, like so many seeds tossed in the wind. Some are interviewing with newspapers. Some, like my daughter, have started blogging about healthy lifestyle issues. Others are speaking in public venues, getting youth to sign healthy lifestyle pledge cards, hosting community events to raise awareness of the issue...they are using their passion and creativity to reverse the tide of childhood obesity that threatens to overwhelm our nation's health system.
Their goals are ambitious: to stop the climb in childhood obesity by 2010, and to reverse the trend by 2015. Laudable goals. Amazing youth. I will watch their efforts with great anticipation. You can, too, by visiting the Alliance's website.
So what's the gardening link? Gardening provides a way to improve diet and is a form of healthy exercise. It's a great kid-friendly activity, too. Gardening is a vital part of a healthy lifestyle. Is it part of yours?
"A Garden for Everyone. Everyone in a Garden."
* For all you geography wonks, the actual geographic center of the contiguous (lower) 48 states is about four miles west of Lebanon, Kansas, at 98°35' West 39°50' North. That's about 458 miles from Kansas City, MO. Pretty close to center in a nation as big as this! But it was a nice literary device, right?