The economy is in free fall; peanut butter has become a deadly killer; and you’re worried about the fate of the planet due to our collective, environmental profligacy. What you’re looking for is a silver bullet, an elegant solution that addresses multiple problems. Well, by God, Eleanor Roosevelt has an answer for you. Long considered a quaint relic of American history, her decision to dig up a portion of the White House lawn is being dusted off and discussed beyond the confines of hippie communes and Whole-Food stores. The Victory Garden has found a new home on page 36 of The Economist (2/28 – 3/6 2009) and managed to nibble into a little bit of concrete outside the USDA headquarters in Washington. Just in time for the season of seed catalogs and the yearly perfection of mental gardening.
Hardly a day goes by without some pundit or another making a comparison between today and the Great Depression, but there is at least one massive difference between then and now. Then, something like 40% of the population made its living off the land; now the census doesn’t even bother listing “farmer” as an occupation. Food comes from the grocery store, and a whole generation of Americans has grown up with few of them knowing what a real vegetable tastes like. Carrots grow without skin in plastic bags, and few people realize that the massive acreage devoted to corn does not produce the buttered goodness of a late-summer ear of sweet corn. In short, the majority of Americans would be hard-pressed to eke out survival without the massive, and petro-fueled, supply chain that ends on the dinner table.
Before going one word further, let me state clearly that i am not advocating the overthrow of our modern farming methods or proposing a wild-eyed attack on Big Ag. I’ll leave that to the misguided hippies who populate comment threads related to food and suggest enforced, organic veganism while dreaming of starting their very own organic farm with an apple seed that they saved from a particularly delicious heirloom variety. (No, seriously, that last example is true. The commenter listed a whole business plan while being unaware that apples don’t grow true from seed…hippies.) The modern food chain isn’t going anywhere, particularly if it remains tasked with providing the full compliment of food to a nation of 300+ million people. Any reformation of that system will require first taking a great deal of stress off of it. And we’d be wise to remove as much of that stress as possible before systemic problems rend its ability to provide for us.
At the end of WW II, 40% of America’s vitamin intake was produced in Victory Gardens. That is an astounding number. Imagine the difference in your monthly budget if you lopped 40% off the grocery bill. Now imagine preparing a meal with the knowledge that it did not require the petro-chemical inputs of industrial agriculture, nor the Mexican slave labor of produce farmers, nor the diesel fuel to travel its average 1500 miles, nor the energy inputs at the grocery store, nor even the trip to the grocery store. Now imagine that the tomato in the salad actually tastes like a tomato!
But again, this is in no way a call to “return to nature” or a suggestion to grow dreadlocks because they provide a home for insect biodiversity. It’s about doing what you can with the space that you have. It has nothing to do with bringing down “The Man”, but everything to do with the freedom that comes from being able to take care of yourself. There is no freedom for the man who is given (or purchases) a fish; freedom comes from knowing how to fish.
In most cases, calls to help the environment revolve around all the things we should give up or stop doing. Here we have something we can start doing that produces benefits for the environment and beyond. It’s not even a difficult or massive change like buying solar panels or investing in a new car. With between 30 and 40 million acres of America devoted to turf grass, there is plenty of room to expand food production and bring it closer to home.
Eleanor Roosevelt inspired roughly 20 million Americans to grow their own. Barack Obama should follow in her footsteps, but i do not expect to see the president out weeding the arugula. He and the first lady have spoken of their desire to keep Sasha and Malia “grounded” in spite of their residence at the White House. The first family believes that chores are more beneficial than servants, and i agree. I would add that the best way to stay grounded is to get your hands into the ground.
The Obama girls should be put in charge of the National Vegetable Garden. Fresh air, exercise, responsibility, and the pride of putting food on the presidential table will all follow. Chances are they could get school credit for the project as well. Perhaps they will also serve as a source of inspiration similar to Eleanor Roosevelt. If they succeed, they will be able to credibly lay claim to bringing more hope and change to their nation than their father.
In the coming weeks this introduction will be followed by practical articles concerning what you can do, what you need to know, places to gather information, and ideas. Many of the ideas will be geared towards small yards and city dwellers who are likely to think that they have few options…thankfully, they are wrong.