On the Fourth of July, I spent the first few hours of the day tending the school garden. As I pulled weeds and harvested blackberries, I reflected on what patriotism really means and how school gardens represent a light at the end of what, at least lately, seems like a very dark tunnel.
Rapidly rising obesity rates, ongoing environmental degradation, and decreased food security has spurred a resurgence of school gardens in the 21st century. Not only do school gardens provide a real-world context for academic study in all subjects, research affirms they also promote overall wellness in several of the following ways:
- increased time outside in connection with nature has a positive impact on social-emotional development
- exposure to fresh, locally grown food encourages students to add fruits and vegetables to their diets
- working in a garden promotes physical activity and fosters a sense of community and accomplishment
- learning to grow one’s own food builds economic independence and improves food security
In 2009, former first lady Michelle Obama planted a food garden on the South Lawn of the White House. Shortly thereafter, she launched her Let’s Move campaign aimed at promoting healthy lifestyles in children as a means to combat childhood obesity and nutritional shortfalls. To some, this was a monumental (and highly symbolic) move on the part of the federal government. Primarily, taking direct action and getting her hands dirty (literally), was meant to influence public policy and demonstrate a commitment to investing in America’s health. But it also represented something bigger: the American ideal of self-reliance.
Although the White House garden is (reportedly) far less prominent under a new administration, the ideal it represents is worth noting. In fact, it wasn’t the first time self-reliance was upheld at the national level. A century ago, the U.S. School Garden Army (USSGA) was created by the then-named Bureau of Education (with funding from the War Department!). As World War I drew to a close, the USSGA represented federal policy aimed at countering the growing tension between urban and rural life and fostering a more robust food economy.
One hundred years later, school gardens hail a different sort of war cry–one that hopes to safeguard the health and wellness of every child. National, state, and local policy still plays a significant role in the school garden movement. Although the federal government no longer supports school gardens directly, the Farm-to-School grant program provides indirect support for school gardens to support nutrition education and garden-to-cafeteria efforts.
The school garden movement is especially prominent here in California, where the former state superintendent of education, Delaine Easton, called for “a garden in every school” and provided “seed money” for any school that wanted to start a garden. In 2006, California passed landmark legislation with Assembly Bill 1535, which provided funding for instructional gardens. Over $10 million were awarded in the first round of funding. Unfortunately, the funding was discontinued due to the state budget crises of following the 2008 financial downturn.
Today, most school gardens rely on local initiatives. In Napa, a grassroots group of teachers, UC Extension volunteers, and a few nonprofit organizations share the responsibility of recruiting and developing school garden educators. Yet, many of these efforts are not institutionalized in a broad way because of the incredible demands already placed on schools and the severe lack of funding they regularly face.
School gardens, along with community gardens, farmers markets, and community supported agriculture, are worthwhile ways to interact with the food system, but a real act of patriotism would mean harkening back to policies of yesteryears: federal, state, and local funding for every school garden.