Sunday, September 21, 2008

Bring Back the Victory Garden

History tells us that in times of crisis, Americans have sought solace in gardening. Crises seem to inspire us to return to our agrarian roots and embrace traditional values of self-reliance, community and service.

I don’t know about you, but this feels like a crisis to me.

In the midst of an economic meltdown of historic proportions, we're learning the limits of a fundamentalist approach to capitalism. Our government has been preaching free markets, deregulation and privatization of services, with active intrusion into other countries/cultures to proselytize a global free-market economy. Unfortunately, this approach has sparked our currrent crisis, by promoting higher profits and an ever-higher standard of living over more important values of commmunity and sustainability.

Now, the government is scrambling to stem the tide, asking for carte-blanche authority to throw hundreds of billions of dollars at the proverbial barn door, with no guarantee that it will stick. That’s hundreds of billions of dollars that won’t be going to fund education, infrastructure or R&D. It’s more money out of our pockets, at a time when gas and food prices are sky-rocketing, unemployment is rising, people’s home values have cratered and all of our savings, investments and retirements are at risk. Is it, as they say, inevitable? Will it fix the problem?

I’ve been glued to the television, with the same dumb-struck inertia that I felt after 9-11 – watching pundits debate causes, impacts and potential solutions to this crisis while harboring an icy fear for our collective future. As with 9-11 – despite the fact that my psyche contracted every time I watched images of those planes crashing into the towers and the towers coming down and now contracts with each punch and jab of the current debate -- I feel paralyzed. I don’t know what to do, and I can’t stop watching.

Enough, I say, with others out there. Enough is enough!

It’s time for us to tear ourselves away.

We may not be able to solve the entire global, economic crises -- but we can find ways to challenge the prevailing "Chicago-School of Economics" model and be productive. And we can start in our own back yards. Milton Friedman himself said, “…only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”

So here’s an idea that’s been lying around for a long time: let's bring back the Victory Garden.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, citizens stepped up. In 1942, the non-profit National Victory Garden Institute was formed to promote victory gardens and provide educational and technical support, and the response was overwhelming. By 1943, American citizens had planted more than 20 million Victory Gardens, producing 8 million tons of food and over 50 percent of all the fresh vegetables consumed in the U.S.

It was not a new idea, even then. Since the late 1800s, we’ve responded to crises by establishing and nurturing backyard, community and urban gardens. These gardens have helped us survive economic depressions and recessions; they’ve sustained us through two World Wars; they've persisted despite the rise of industrialization and the shift in our population away from rural communities and into urban areas; and they’ve sustained important American ideals.

Today, gardening has the potential to address a number of the challenges we face. It provides affordable access to safe, healthy and nutritious foods; it delivers significant health and economic benefits; it promotes sustainability; it supports community development and enlightened self-government; and it delivers these benefits affordably and cost effectively.

The popularity of gardening attests to its benefits to individual gardeners, including increased physical activity and related health and mental health benefits. Gardening has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes and other chronic ailments, cut the risk of osteoporosis in women, reduce asthma in children, improve productivity in office workers, accelerate recovery in post-operative patients, and create a mental state with brain wave patterns similar to those achieved in meditation. Recently, exposure to a common soil bacterium was found to stimulate immune systems and increased serotonin levels in the brain.

Gardens also make healthy, nutritious food affordable. A 64 square foot plot can save a family up to $600 in food purchases per year. Research tells us that when comparing the value of food produced to the material cost of production, the return on investment is approximately 20 to one.

Fresh food is healthy food. Due to the degradation of foods in storage and transport, garden fruits and vegetables can have as much as twice the vitamins available from supermarket produce at the same price. Moreover, people who participate in gardens tend to eat more fresh vegetables than those who do not. Ohri-Vachaspati (1999) reported that gardeners consumed nearly twice as many servings of fruits and vegetables as non-gardeners, and of the gardeners surveyed, more than 70 percent consumed at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day; 74 percent preserved produce from the garden (by freezing, canning, drying, etc.) and 95 percent shared produce with others.

Gardens also promote improved food safety and security. Nearly every day, news headlines warn us of a new food scare: pesticides in apples; E. coli in beef patties, spinach and bagged lettuce; toxic chemicals in infant formula; the list goes on and on. People who raise their own food have more control over how it’s raised and what goes into it. Those who choose to garden organically can reap significant nutritional benefits as well. Studies have shown that organic food contains greater amounts of essential minerals such as iron, calcium, magnesium and potassium. A recently completed study by the European Union – the largest study of its kind, covering four years and costing approximately $25 million – confirmed that organic fruit and vegetables contain up to 40 percent more antioxidants, including flavenoids; organic produce has higher levels of beneficial minerals like iron and zinc; and milk from organic herds contains up to 90 percent more antioxidants.

Organic gardening also helps the environment. Based on 23 years of field studies on organic farming practices, The Rodale Institute reports that organic soils can offset CO2 emissions by capturing atmospheric CO2 and converting it into soil material. The studies document an average increase in soil carbon of about 1,000 pounds per acre-foot of soil, or about 3,500 pounds of CO2 per acre-foot per year. If we all worked together to improve the soil health of our yards and gardens, we could make a significant dent in our collective carbon footprint.

Finally, some of the most potent benefits of gardening are the hardest to quantify. Gardens provide a venue for relearning important values related to self reliance, delayed gratification, cooperation with natural processes and community stewardship. Anyone can plant a garden – whether it’s in a container garden on a fire escape outside an apartment window, a strip of land in the backyard or vacant lot in the neighborhood. We can take back power from the government, agribusiness, and Wall Street -- and begin again to care for ourselves and others.

Gardening puts us into a direct relationship with earth. It reminds us of the mysterious cycles that govern birth, growth, production, death and renewal -- and it reinforces the notion that, despite our wishes and fantasies to the contrary, we are part of -- and not above -- these mysteries. Anyone who studies photosynthesis has got to revere the elegance and complexity of the interdependence of nature's processes; it's enough to knock your socks off. Above all, gardening teaches us that we must nurture what we care for and protect what we depend on – i.e., clean air, clean water, temperate climate, healthy soil, microorganisms, insects, and the whole ecological chain.

Gardening can also put us in direct relationship with others. It’s a common activity that often serves as a catalyst for community, as gardeners in a given neighborhood connect over fences and alleyways to share questions, expertise, tools, seeds, and harvests. (Zucchini, anyone? Anyone? Please?)

Working with others to create a community garden provides the opportunity to practice communication and cooperation with a group of diverse, albeit like-minded, people. This not only strengthens community; it also can – and often does -- serve as a springboard to community development and participatory democracy, at a very local level.

It may not be a total solution, but it's a start.

As Michael Pollan says, “Measured against the Problems We Face, planting a garden sounds pretty benign… but it fact, it’s one of the most powerful things an individual can do – to reduce our carbon footprint, sure, but more important to reduce our sense of dependence and dividedness.”

So I say, let's bring back the Victory Garden.

Let's tear ourselves away from the TV and the financial pages. Let's get out there and get our hands dirty.

It’s time to plant the seeds of change.


CleaDanaan said...

Hear - hear!

Thanks for the timely post.

Sundari Elizabeth said...

Wonderful post - I couldn't agree more.

Debbie said...

Thank you, Becky! Well said.

T said...

I want to be a part of this wonderful movement.

Erin said...

Count me in!