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,shared sacrifice and hope. 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 used War Department monies to roll out a national school garden program. 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 has many needs right now. Families are economically insecure. (This is an understatement). Communities are food-insecure. Obesity is epidemic; the figures on childhood obesity are particularly disturbing. We have a tenuous connection with the land and a poor understanding of our food system. Environmental concerns - and declining oil supplies - dictate a need to recreate more sustainable and local food systems. And despite the bad news, Americans have proven that they are hungry for change, eager to re-engage with their neighbors, their communities and their nation.
A revival of the successful national gardening programs of the past is clearly occurring. Gardening and the local food movement are hot topics. And consider the USDA’s Peoples Garden Initiative (PGI). If encouraged and supported by us, the PGI could help in myriad ways, as the infrastructure for the program is already in place and the educational materials that support school, home and community gardens are available through existing government agencies and private organizations. And, as I suggested to Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack via the Huffington Post, thousands of highly-trained volunteer Master Gardeners (who serve under the USDA’s umbrella through land grant institutions) can be called upon to share their expertise with school, home and community gardeners.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: all President Obama needs to do is ask. Summon us to service. Come out to your garden, Mr. President, and admit to us that things are bad, but tell us that we can make a difference by acting locally and through the simple act of gardening. Encourage those who can plant a garden to do it. Summon us to service. Ask us to plant for our families and our communities; to grow a row for the hungry; to share any extra produce with food banks.
Mr. President, we’re hungry for change (and a shameful number of Americans are just plain hungry). Sometimes to move forward, we must look back for inspiration. Certainly, the Victory Gardens of the past provide a wonderful example of what ordinary citizens can accomplish on the home front to respond to challenges in the larger world. The revival of a national Victory Garden campaign can give us the kind of change we can dig into, some good news we can all use right now. I can’t miraculously stop the flow of oil pouring into the Gulf, but I can facilitate the small miracle of growing and providing fresh produce to my family, and perhaps sharing it with those who are experiencing hunger in my community. Please, Mr. President: Summon us to service.
View a presentation about the past, present and future of the Victory Garden movement: