Beyond “Museum” Gardens
By Jesse Kurtz-Nicholl

With so much news coverage of Michelle Obama lately, you would think that gardens are the answer to all of our public health problems. In addition to the “White House” garden, you’ve got the new “People’s Garden” at the USDA building in Washington, DC, and Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack and his wife cheering the establishment of gardens at the capital’s elementary schools. These efforts are not without merit, and are worthy of the plaudits they receive from those in the food movement and from the general public. I similarly applaud states that implement such legislation as California’s “Garden in Every School” initiative, especially when it is supported with some funding. However, it’s like the old proverb, “give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, teach him how to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” Those wonderful intentions without substantial follow-through are “paper tigers” against the environmental and health issues that face our public with regards to the food system, most notably: food insecurity, obesity, loss of bio-diversity, and environmental degradation. Gardens that exist as exhibitions only to be looked at and talked about will not move us anywhere close to where we need to go. We need this garden movement to move far beyond what Michelle Obama has heroically brought to the nation’s attention.

I see the movement at a crossroads: One path makes us all feel better, but yields very little in the way of reducing obesity, greening urban food deserts, and creating local control of the food system. The other requires more effort, but actually can affect not only our local foodshed, but more importantly, our children’s nutritional path, future health, and prosperity. Right now, we are on path number 1.  Throughout the United States, if students learn about food in school it is through “museum” gardens. I call them museums because they exemplify our look-but-don’t-touch mentality toward food production. If your children are lucky, their school may grow herbs, some vegetables, and teach a lesson or two about nutrition, plants, and the growth cycle.  The students may even be able to take home a carrot or munch on it happily. Then they walk into the corner store, the vegetables disappear, and there’s no significant follow-up to those isolated nutrition lessons.  This could explain why the Associated Press reported that out of 57 federally funded programs with a price tag of over 1 billion dollars spent to increase fruit and vegetable consumption among children, only four succeeded in their task. We need to shed this museum mentality.  Students can no longer stare at our food system from behind protective glass, wearing blindfolds and waiting for the teacher to take them to the food court. Follow the proverb; we need to hand them that trowel and teach them how to grow.

Our country faces an obesity epidemic such as the world has never seen. A recent study out of the Bloomberg School at Johns Hopkins estimates that 75 percent of adult Americans will be overweight by 2015. These numbers have consequences, not only for our health as a nation, but for our economy and future prosperity. If we continue on this course, one in three children born in America in the year 2000 will develop diabetes in their lifetime; for minority children that number is one in two. A recent study by Kenneth Thorpe, the chairman of the Department of Health Policy and Management at Emory University, finds that at current trends, by 2018, annual obesity-related health care costs will total more than 20 percent of total health care spending.  That means that in less than a decade, health care costs attributable to obesity will have more than doubled.

Obesity is an extremely complex, multifaceted health problem.  Countries can have undernourished and overnourished individuals in the same community and even the same household. Obesity cannot be unraveled from poverty or corporate greed. There are causal elements in personal responsibility and government policy. Yes, we need taxes on sugary beverages, a new farm bill, and campaign finance reform, but we need something more fundamental. The next generation of kids needs the chance to connect with food. With every generation since urbanization, our connection with food, our understanding of where it comes from and how it is grown, has become more distant.  I’ve worked with students in urban areas where the connection is so lost that they cannot recognize whole fruits and vegetables.  Path number 2 takes down the glass partition and places the kids inside the museum, locks them in overnight, and makes the broccoli and squash come alive. Every school in the United States should have a garden/school farm engaged in real food production that is working toward adding fresh, healthy produce to the foodshed of that community.  It’s even more local than local.

Take for example a school district with 30 schools. In order to supply every school with a salad bar of lettuce greens once a week, you would need about three pounds of lettuce per school.  That works out to approximately 100 pounds of lettuce per week. One school site could easily produce this much from just 4,000 square feet of space, a small chunk of land that the majority of schools have to spare. With just a handful of schools running food production programs, all schools could have a healthy salad bar every day of the week.  While the students involved are feeding their classmates, they are engaged in an authentic education about food and nutrition that cannot be replicated in a classroom. It may not seem like much, but a studentgrown salad bar with tasty, healthy food is revolutionary. It will inspire other schools to start similar programs. This is not a pipe dream. The numbers are there. That is the vision of a food-production program as opposed to a museum garden.

Students will no longer enter a school garden, be handed a carrot like it is some object from Mars, and hear, “look, this stuff actually comes from the ground!” No! Students will grow food from seed, and along the way, learn to cook with it, take significant amounts home with them, and see it in their cafeterias. High schoolers can learn trades, career and leadership skills, business and marketing skills through established school farms. They can pass that knowledge to younger kids through mentoring programs, further bonding communities together.  The food system is so integrated into everything we as a society do that it can be a holistic approach to so many issues. Will we make communities more food secure? Yes. Will we reduce the separation between urban and rural communities? Yes. Will we get childhood obesity under control? Yes. Will future consumers look more closely at food sourcing, organic agriculture, and the issues of pesticides and pollution in our food system? Yes.

Encourage your local school board, city council, and the state government to support school gardens, but also strive to find programs that are pushing the envelope of authentic food production with students and really give your support to them. •

Jesse Kurtz-Nicholl is a program coordinator for Urban Tilth, a nonprofit dedicated to youth development through the creation of a local foodshed in

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