Crank back to Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign, when Democratic strategist James Carville hung a sign in the campaign headquarters in Little Rock detailing the three key messages of Clinton's campaign. Point two read, "The economy, stupid." The phrase - meant to be an internal campaign slogan - caught on, and entered popular culture.
That phrase might now read "It's the Food System, Stupid." Tonight I read a breaking CNN story on the worsening international situation vis-a-vis skyrocketing food prices. Riots continue in Haiti, Egypt and Zimbabwe; Bangladesh is the site of the latest civil unrest centered on food prices and shortages. Expect more nations to experience food riots in the upcoming days and weeks. Expect some of these nations to experience serious political destabilization. And expect impacts from the international situation to affect us domestically; America has vital strategic interests in a number of these nations (particularly Egypt).
Historians know that nations that cannot keep food supplies cheap, abundant and secure are in trouble. Food is national security. Food, fuel and the rise and fall of nations are inextricably linked. If the cost of fuel rises, the price of food will rise as well. That's the big picture.
The small picture - but the one with emotional impact - is the middle-class mom in my community who reported to a local newspaper that she didn't buy eggs this week because "they were too expensive." Eggs are expensive. The price of nearly food item has risen lately, and the increase in food prices has far surpassed any concurrent rise in income that families may have experienced.
I spent my lunch hour walking through the grocery store today, looking at prices and wondering, "How the heck are people going to do this?" I saw more people pondering their food choices in the aisles. Baskets didn't seem as full. I know that I've been much more careful about closely following my own shopping list. We are buying more of our food directly from farmer's stands in our area, which is certainly a cheaper, fresher and more sustainable alternative than the chain grocery store. But that's an option that many Americans don't have.
There is so much newspaper space devoted to rising food costs right now. It, more than even our presidential election, is the story of the year. However, most of the articles overlook an important part of the solution: gardening. Gardening can help families bridge the gap in challenging economic times. Even a modest container garden can help the budget. A larger garden can become an integral part of a family's diet, and can also provide a low-cost, healthy and fun alternative to more expensive activities.
The federal government is going to have to step in to address rising food prices. It's an issue of national security. And any part of a government plan to address rising food costs should include promoting school, home and community garden programs. Yes, it's the economy, but it's also the food system.
"A Garden for Everyone. Everyone in a Garden."
Recently, I had the privilege to work with two sixth grade classes taught by a gifted educator in Ventura Unified School District, Anne Morningstar. Ms. Morningstar is the best kind of teacher: one who teaches superbly by inspiring her students to develop a love of learning, to think outside the box, and to apply what they learn. In the words of more than one sixth-grader, "she rocks!" I agree.
I spent some time discussing the concept of sustainable food systems with each class. We also discussed how fortunate these students are to live in an area that is so abundant and diverse in terms of the food that is produced. The students asked wonderful questions and offered thoughtful answers to the questions that I posed.
Each table group worked collaboratively to develop ideas and answers for six different discussion points about food systems, their role as consumers, and how they can encourage others their age to take positive actions to improve their school food system, decrease the food mile, and take a more active and informed role as consumers.
The result of their work was amazing, and will be posted on the VictoryGrower site in the next few days. I encourage you to check back to see the ideas that these students provided.
A few days after our discussion, I received a stack of cards from these remarkable students. More than a few described their home gardening efforts. I was not surprised that quite a few of these students gardened at home. After all, these are youth who have participated in Ventura Unified's Healthy School Project, which not only provides a wonderful farm-to-school program through its cafeterias, but also has a linked program that encourages school gardens. A number of the students had enjoyed farm-fresh produce from their school salad bar, and had also gardened with me during their six years at Loma Vista Elementary School. And Ventura County, as a whole, has a history of success in nurturing school garden programs, from the top down, and the bottom up. It's been a wonderful thing to watch and be part of. Clearly, exposure to these kinds of programs in school will positively influence behavior outside of school.
Most of the students, though, described what they dreamed of growing. If they read this, I'd encourage each of them to take the next step, to make the commitment to become a VictoryGrower by making a home garden their family's project this spring. It's the perfect time to pick up a hoe, make a family memory, and anticipate wonderful eating this summer.
I know that some have already started. During my recent visit, I gave each student vegetable seeds. When I visited the school again today, a student came up to me and said the seeds he'd planted had already sprouted. He was very excited. And so was I. Congratulations, Andrew, on being a VictoryGrower!
"A Garden for Everyone. Everyone in A Garden."
This week's recall of 143 million pounds of beef (much of it destined for the nation's school lunch program) inspired today's blog. Originally, I was going to plug school gardens and farm-to-school as a way to improve the school food system. I began writing about
Instead, I am going to allow a youth to speak to the issue. My daughter, Natalie, a middle-school student in Ventura Unified, was asked to prepare a written and oral book report. With my encouragement, she chose to discuss Eric Schlosser and Charles Wilson's, "Chew On This: Everything You Don't Want to Know about Fast Food." It's "Fast Food Nation" for younger audiences, and it's a compelling read. Natalie read it, and after she was done for the day, I'd read it, too. The writing style engaged her, and I noticed her sharing information with her friends via phone calls, emails and in personal conversations. Hmmm…youth advocacy? The report she gave was a hit, and the book has passed among eight different sixth graders and their families in the last couple of months. When it was returned to us last week (on a short layover before being passed on to yet another friend), I noticed how dog-eared it had become. An important book will take on that aspect, don't you think?
Inspired by the book, Natalie wrote the authors. Here is a copy of her letter, unedited:
"Dear Eric Schlosser & Charles Wilson,
I really enjoyed reading your book Chew On This. I really liked how honest you were about McDonalds, and how they just wanted to make money, and not care about what they put into their products. I used to eat at Wendy’s at least once a week. Since I started reading your book, I’ve only eaten there once in one month and a half. I think that Chew On This has really changed my perspective on food. I really appreciate that you have made a book that can really change someone’s life. I liked it so much; I am going to do a book report on it. I have been telling all of my classmates about it, and many of them want to read it. Most of my classmates liked hearing about the food coloring and how the chickens were treated at the slaughter houses. Some of them even said, “I never want to eat at McDonalds again!” Other classmates have asked me repeatedly if they could borrow my book. I also told my teacher about how they now do Gastric Bypass Surgery on kids, she said “Really? I can’t understand why they would do that if it’s so dangerous for adults!”
I was amazed at how much I didn’t know, because my mom works in agriculture, and the history of agriculture. She even read the book and was also amazed at how much she didn’t know. My mom went to a food conference this summer, and I met Melinda Hemmelgarn, (The Food Sleuth), and I have listened to her talk before. If you haven’t read her column, you should. Again, I really thank you for writing this book. You have changed my life.
11 years old, Natalie Smith"
Mom again. I guess the point of this blog is to note that perhaps the strongest allies we have to help us promote gardening, healthy eating, and a sustainable food system are youth. If we can provide space for them to enter into the discussion, they may direct us to the solution. That's certainly my hope.
Over the President's Day holiday, Natalie planted her spring
P.S. from Natalie’s mom: Natalie is right about a lot of things, including how much her mom doesn’t know. She’s also spot on about reading Melinda Hemmelgarn's work. A link to yesterday's column, in which she addressed
"A Garden for Everyone. Everyone in a Garden."
The American Public Health Assocation (APHA) recently issued "Toward a Healthy, Sustainable Food System" (Policy Number: 200712). It provides an excellent summary of the state of America's food system and the public health implications of how we're currently operating. The APHA's report explicitly links issues relating to the food system with public health, which of course makes sense. The APHA also has some interesting recommendations. Among its many and sound recommendations, the APHA:
- "Urges the public health community to increase its engagement in food system issues and to educate policymakers; media; food industry; and public health, nutrition, and environmental professionals about public health issues and solutions associated with the food system, including issues related to sustainability, nutrition, and justice."
- "Better align US investment emphasis with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and seek to make healthy, sustainably produced foods the affordable, convenient choices
- "Encourages governmental food procurement programs (including school breakfast, lunch, and snack programs and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) and institutional food providers to consider the benefits of locally and sustainably produced, healthy and fair trade foods and to take steps to incorporate these into their programs."
- "Encourages cooperative efforts in local food systems, with governmental support, to—
a. Improve local food marketing, distribution, and processing capacity and infrastructure
b. Establish and promote food policy councils to enable evaluating food systems and recommend changes
c. Reduce barriers to obtaining sustainable, locally produced, fair trade and healthy foods
d. Increase state and local cooperative extension program activities targeted to small farms and those producing fruits and vegetables"
- "Urges involvement of an independent body such as the Institute of Medicine or US Government Accountability Office to conduct a broad review of the public health impacts of US agricultural policy and engage in ongoing monitoring to assure that public health concerns are better heard in decisionmaking about agricultural policy."
The complete report is available at http://www.apha.org/advocacy/policy/policysearch/default.htm?id=1361
While it's not explicitly or strongly argued in this paper, school, home and community gardens could - and ought to be - an important strategy in creating a more healthy and sustainable food system. Local gardening efforts are one of the most effective strategies in reducing barriers to obtaining sustainable, locally-produced, and healthy foods. School gardens provide an excellent way to improve nutrition on school grounds, and complement a number of APHA's suggestions about how to improve governmental food procurement programs.
While it doesn't plug gardening as strongly as it should, the APHA's report deserves wide distribution. It should give all Americans - and especially policy makers - ample reason to consider again that our current national food system has real problems...and that the increasing number of Americans struggling with chronic, preventable diseases demonstrates this point.
"A Garden for Everyone. Everyone in a Garden."
In 1994 or so, a wise 4-H Advisor named Dan Desmond started talking to me about using gardening as a youth and community development strategy. He provided research that supported some pretty awesome claims: that gardening could improve academic performance, positively affect nutrition, improve communities, increase civic engagement, etc., etc. I listened carefully and made some notes, because if you've met Dan, you know he's a brilliant, emminently sensible and persuasive guy.
Crank forward about fifteen years. Those conversations with Dan Desmond profoundly impacted my professional work and personal philosophies. Can conversations change your life? Yes, they can, and they do. In addition to staking my professional reputation on work increasingly centered around garden-based learning, I returned to school and began studying the history of gardening in America. What I learned there convinced me even more that every child, family and community in America ought to be in a garden TODAY.
For the next two years, I have the privilege of serving as a Food and Society Policy Fellow (FASP Fellow). To learn more about the program, visit http://www.foodandsocietyfellows.org/ Each FASP Fellow determines a primary goal that he/she wants to accomplish. My goal is to increase community-based food security by promoting policies that encourage school, home and community garden programs.
As you read this blog, you'll discover why I think this goal is so important right now. And being an historian, I won't be able to resist throwing in some history about why leading Americans (including some presidents) thought this was important even a hundred years ago. I promise, it won't be anything boring, and there won't be a test on the material, either.
As a companion to this blog, I've also developed a VictoryGrower website, which is located at http://www.foodandsocietyfellows.org/ It's still under construction, but check back often, as I add something new every day.
And remember..."A Garden for Everyone. Everyone in a Garden."