By Jesse Kurtz-Nicholl
With all of the coverage of Michelle Obama in the news lately, you would be a fool not to 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 D.C., you’ve got Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack and his wife cheering the establishment of gardens at local Washington D.C. elementary schools. The public and the food movement should laud these efforts and they are not without merit. I similarly applaud states like California that began the “Garden in every school,” initiative. Many others are following suit and I’m glad they have supported that initiative 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 to only be looked 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 want to push beyond the awareness building of the White House garden and I see this garden movement at the crossroads of two paths. One path makes us all feel better, but yields very little in the way of reduced obesity, urban food deserts and local control of food. The other requires more effort, but actually can affect, not only our local food shed, 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 towards food production. If your child is lucky, their school may grow herbs, some vegetables and receive 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 of over 1 billion dollars spent to increase fruit and vegetable consumption among children, only 4 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 children face an unrelenting obesity epidemic the world has never seen. A recent study out of the Bloomberg School at Johns Hopkins estimates that 75% of adult Americans will be overweight by 2015. These numbers have consequences, not only for our health as a nation, but our economy and future prosperity. One in three children born in the year 2000 will develop diabetes in their lifetime and for minorities 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, multi-faceted health problem. Countries can have under nourished and over nourished 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 whole fruits and vegetables are unrecognizable to their senses.
Path number 2 takes down the glass partition and places the kids in 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 towards adding fresh, healthy produce to the food shed 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 worth of lettuce greens once a week, you would need about 3 pounds of lettuce per school. That works out to approximately 100 pounds of lettuce per week. A school site could easily produce this much with just 4,000 square feet of space, a small chunk of land that the majority of schools have to spare! With a handful of schools participating, schools could have a healthy salad bar every day of the week. While those students are feeding their classmates they are engaged in an authentic education about food and nutrition that cannot be replicated in a classroom. 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 foreign object from mars and told, “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 be reduce the separation between urban and rural communities? Yes. Will we get childhood obesity under control? Yes. Will future consumers look more closely at locality, organic food, pesticides and pollution that exist in our current food system? Yes.
Jesse Kurtz-Nicholl is a Masters in Public Health candidate at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. This article originally appeared in Edible East Bay and is reposted here with permission of the author.
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