Wednesday, January 20, 2010

School Gardens and the Seeds of Change

Poster uploaded by Joan Thewlis

Have you seen the critique of school gardens published recently in The Atlantic?

Imagine that as a young and desperately poor Mexican man, you had made the dangerous and illegal journey to California to work in the fields with other migrants. There, you performed stoop labor, picking lettuce and bell peppers and table grapes; what made such an existence bearable was the dream of a better life. You met a woman and had a child with her, and because that child was born in the U.S., he was made a citizen of this great country. He will lead a life entirely different from yours; he will be educated. Now that child is about to begin middle school in the American city whose name is synonymous with higher learning, as it is the home of one of the greatest universities in the world: Berkeley. On the first day of sixth grade, the boy walks though the imposing double doors of his new school, stows his backpack, and then heads out to the field, where he stoops under a hot sun and begins to pick lettuce.

The author continues that schools should never be "a venue in which to advance a social agenda." They should not try to teach self-sufficiency in the growing and eating of healthy food. She suggests, although rates of diabetes and heart disease are astoundingly high among inner-city communities and others living in poverty, the "suicidal dietary choices of so many poor people are the result of a problem, not the problem itself." Instead of teaching students about gardening and cooking, "the solution lies in an education that will propel students into a higher economic class, where they will live better and therefore eat better." Therefore, the only question educators should consider is "What are you doing to prepare these kids for college?"

At a certain level, I agree with the author: poverty is the problem at the root of so many of our society's ills. And I also agree that the answer to addressing poverty goes way beyond school gardens.

But honestly, addressing poverty also goes way beyond trying to send all students to college.

Students raised in a family and community with less than they need often struggle in academic settings. Yes--college is absolutely a way out of poverty for exceptionally bright students who can fight against the odds. But poverty also prevents many just reasonably bright students from succeeding in academia, no matter how much their teachers drill them in test-taking skills or even teach them great literature. This is terribly wrong--but it is true none the less. Those of us who grew up middle class with educated parents often have an easy time in the classroom, even if we're NOT reasonably bright.   And honestly, not all students (and this has nothing to do with whether they are poor or rich) should be told that college is their only option for creating a productive life.

While school gardens might not solve the problems of poverty, I do believe that they begin to address far more than just the eating habits of students.

Berkeley's Edible Schoolyard is located at a school with a high number of brand new immigrants who speak little or no English yet. While learning English can happen in a classroom with a textbook, language also gets learned in real life when students of many cultures come together in a more relaxed place to grow, cook, and eat food together. They share their native plants, the recipes of their cultures, and their traditions of hospitality. This makes for a place where people can both appreciate each others' differences and see each others' similarities.

For those students who do struggle in the classrooms, the garden offers a place where learning happens in a different fashion--just as the art classroom and the music rooms can. Should these subjects be offered completely INSTEAD of teaching a skill that (as the author states) clearly "improves a child’s chances of doing well on the state tests that will determine his or her future"? No--but leaving these other subjects completely behind--and suggesting they are not at all valuable as real education--denigrates those who now create their lives in fields like these. And of course denigrating the growing of food means that that farmers will never be paid enough or respected enough. It is a vicious circle.

As our world moves rapidly into a time when we have to confront both climate change and severe resource depletion, it seems likely that farmers will be in great demand and treated with much more respect than they have been recently. All students--those who have grown up in families of farmers and those who have grown up thinking food comes from Wal-Mart, those who are living in poverty and those who are living in McMansions--need to know about how sustainable agriculture works.

Barbara Kingsolver approached these issues long before the author of the Atlantic article wrote her inflammatory attention-seeking piece:

The baby boom psyche embraces a powerful presumption that education is a key to moving away from manual labor, and dirt--two undeniable ingredients in farming.  It's good enough for us that somebody, somewhere, knows food production well enough to serve the rest of us with all we need to eat, each day of our lives.

It is our disconnect from growing food and our disrespect for the manual labor that sustains us that leads Americans to, as Kingsolver says, "consider the food industry to be a thing rather than a person. We obligingly give 85 cents of our every food dollar to that thing, too--the processors, marketers, and transporters." The corporatization of our food supply and the high degree of food processing have made farmers almost invisible. If we were more educated about the process of what farmers do to grow our food, perhaps we would "want to compensate or think about these hardworking people."

* * *

So my family plants a few seeds in our tiny garden--partly to produce a few treats here and there and partly to remind ourselves of the skills and labor of those who grow more. We have a CSA share and we meet the amazing growers who work there. We shop at the farmer's market in order to remind ourselves that the food we grow has been nurtured by human hands.

My homeschooled son jokes that this is our own school garden, our own edible schoolyard.


OfTroy said...

I have another issue--(and the NYTimes has a good article about this subject today!)

College isn't trade school.
You don't go to college to get a good job. (or rather, you shouldn't!)

Sometimes, you get a good job because you have proved your abilities (via college)--and sometimes you learn skill that will help you perform you well (in life in general, at a job in particular)

I hate the notion that college=good (ie, HIGH SALARY) job. And that only academic/white color job are good jobs!

There are so many real reasons to go to college--but job prep (dressed up as 'career' development!) shouldn't be one.

And there is a difference between ONLY being able to harvest (work in the field picking lettuce) and Knowing about how things grow--and what foods are good, and why!
(understanding what is required to grow, harvest, prepare food is a life skill as important as reading!

Oh--dear--its sometimes seems the more we learn, the less we know!

Penny L. Richards said...

Absolutely agree--and further, kids really should learn something about how clothes are made and how houses are built. And that doesn't mean the old "girls take home ec and boys take wood shop."

CHo Meir said...

self sufficiency as failure, consumerism and a intentional detachment from how my choice of products effects others... wow. Talk about indoctrination... (BTW, I miss U H, D & A)

Heather said...


I have no desire to be 'self sufficient' in my food growing. Gardening has beaten the romantic picture out of me! I enjoy gardening, but it has also taught me how much work is involved in growing my food (and how much land it takes) in a far more visceral way than a book could!

I also agree strongly with OfTroy: College isn't trade school!!

Heather said...

Also, it's worth asking the family mentioned in the article - do they find it demeaning that their child is learning to garden? Or do they see this as another useful part of education? If *they* aren't insulted then it's hard to see what the problem is.


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