School Gardens – or not?

Sierra on Strollerderby asked us what we thought about Caitlin Flanagan’s article on School Gardens in the Atlantic Monthly. I did make a comment, but it left me thinking all evening, so I guess it goes in here.

If you read my last posting, you will rightly predict that I’m in favor of school gardens, because I feel that our lifestyle in 21st century North America is almost completely divorced from reality. In response to Flanagan’s objections about whether gardening actually has anything to teach, I find myself reluctantly dragging out my credentials. I actually AM trained as a curriculum developer, albeit at the university level. I have spent several years deeply immersed in the problems of who needs to know what, and moreover who gets to decide and why. Additionally, given my close association with the farming community in my province, I find her dismissal of all agriculture as menial labor, frankly, offensive. Production scale market gardening and small scale farming are skilled labour and the planning of succession planting, harvest schedules and marketing strategies rivals or surpasses that of other small businesses. Her assertion that, somehow, we can improve the lot of the underclass by simply lifting some members of it up into the middle class ignores most of the critiques of our class structure that have been produced in the last 90 years…

And yet… I *can* see that there are unexamined class and race issues being swept under the rug by the local food movement, that the needs of the middle and upper-middle class to reconnect with the truth of where their food comes from may not be appropriate goals for a classroom full of students who are likely to work summers in the field. I don’t want to dismiss this point out of hand. I’m just not sure I believe that she really believes it. There’s something in the original article that doesn’t ring true… I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it has something to do with the way that, on the one hand, she scoffs at the ‘volunteerism’ of white-middle-class women of a certain age, and, on the other hand, mentions what she has observed volunteering at the food bank. It has to do with her sly mention of Progressives and subtle jabs at liberals, all the while arguing from a liberal philosophical view point. It has to do with the conflation of poverty, gang violence, and the working class, as though escape is the only option, as though no valid life could be lived without emergence into the middle class. Yet I recognize that I hold this position from a firm footing as an educated white woman of a certain age, and I find myself suspect even in my own eyes. I can only hold up in my defense the possibility of being only two generations removed from the farm and the general store, and growing up instilled with some fairly working class, depression era values. In my world, the poor can have dignity as long as it is not stripped away. They are not all criminals or one step away from it. Moreover, there are many valid life paths that don’t include university. Who are we to say that somebody who doesn’t “laugh at the right parts” of a Shakespearean play but can rebuild a car from the ground up isn’t walking a worthy path?

The unquestioning race away from having to do anything to do with dirt and farming presupposes that the industrial food system, replete with migrant labor and all its attendant abuses is the only way of the future. I know that my own food security is improved by what I grow in my back yard, and I think that the women of insecure incomes that I was recently teaching to cook would be well-served by releasing the sense that needing to grow your own food is degrading. What I have seen in my own volunteer work is people who are willing to go hungry rather than work the soil. This is a sign of a deep problem in our society as a whole, not simply for the women who hold this belief. I am concerned that doing away with school gardens, or only providing this learning to the middle class is a good way to make sure that (once again) only the middle class gets the necessary skills to own and RUN the farms of the future. Urban farming is a very small but growing movement, but it is an example of (mostly educated) people putting their “money” (or, more to the point, their life energies) where their mouths are… If we believe (and many of us do) that peak oil is a reality, that industrial food is a contributing factor, and that food security and our future livelihoods may depend on reconstructing and improving upon other forms of food production, then not to do something about that seems… Erm. Irresponsible at best.

I don’t hold any illusion that my little 1/4 acre garden with 30 chickens is going to save the world. But it might question it a bit, and that’s really what I was going for when I started this project. And yes, I am hoping to start an educational component to the mini-farm. Unfortunately, the growing season here is almost completely misaligned with the school year, but we’re working to follow in Eliot Coleman’s illustrious (if muddy) footprints. These are skills that take years to master, and I’m really glad that my ability to survive in the world is not linked to my ability to coax the right number of the right kind of plants from the soil. I hope that somebody maintains this knowledge… you know, just in case we do turn out to need it one day.