A Call To Farms – Why America Needs A New Victory Garden Movement


WWII-era U.S. War Garden poster

Victory gardens, also called war gardens or food gardens for defense, accounted for the production of nearly 40 percent of the nation’s produce at its peak in 1943.  Vegetable, fruit and herb gardens were planted at private residences and public parks in United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Germany during World War I and World War II to reduce the pressure on the public food supply and build morale. The U.S. government considered this effort a matter of national security. So, what has changed in the past 50 plus years?

Today, home and community gardeners grow only a fraction of what our parents and grandparents grew during the War. Meanwhile, agribusiness has grown out of control. Monsanto, who holds patents on about 80% of all genetically modified seeds, sues small farmers when their fields are contaminated with the patented seed. (see Rodney Nelson’s family farm) Monsanto spent almost $9 million lobbying Washington lawmakers during 2009, an off-election year for national politics.

The U.S. government gives millions of dollars every year, in the form of farm subsidies, to multinational conglomerates who grow monoculture crops like corn. Most of this corn is not even edible and is used solely to make high fructose corn syrup and fillers for highly processed, low ANDI scoring foods. These government subsidies make foods with high sugar content very cheap, according Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University and author of Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, referring to the most prevalent sweetener: high fructose corn syrup, which sweetens most soda pop while upping the calories. (Read a PBS interview with Nestle.)

The politics of food has become a global phenomenon, with nations like China purchasing hundreds of thousands of acres of Brazilian farmland to feed its growing population. Food prices have soared around the world in recent years pushing many impoverished peoples to the brink of starvation. While most of us in the U.S. have been spared this type of shock, nearly all of us have felt the squeeze on our food budgets. If this trend is to be reversed, a different system of food production is needed.

What we need is a brand new Victory Garden Movement.

National Security Is Food Security

Victory gardens were planted in backyards and on apartment-building rooftops, all in support of the war effort to protect our national security. Vacant lots were actually “commandeered for the war effort” and were utilized to grow whatever was needed. During World War II, sections of lawn were publicly plowed for plots in Hyde Park, London to publicize the movement. In New York City, the lawns around vacant “Riverside” were devoted to victory gardens, as were portions of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

Today however, we are facing a new threat – not only to our national security, but to our food security. In 1870, 70-80 percent of the US population was employed in agriculture. As of 2008, that number has dwindled to approximately 2-3 percent of the population.

The cultural heritage of growing of food has been systematically hijacked from the American people over the past 60 years. In response to this shift, the urban farming movement in the U.S. and around the world has taken off. This movement is the result of many factors, food security being only one of them.

A distributed system is a resilient system. DARPA (the project that ultimately resulted in the creation of the Internet) was originally created in response to the Soviet launching of Sputnik during 1957, with the mission of keeping U.S. military technology ahead of the Soviets. The World Wide Web therefore was designed not from a small number of large supercomputers, which would be vulnerable to attack, but a distributed model with thousands of servers located all over the United States.

Urban farms, community and backyard vegetable gardens, represent this same systems model. By having tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of small urban farms located in communities all over the U.S., we can be resilient and practice sustainable agriculture on a small scale. Price spikes will be cushioned by those who, not only grow their own food, but share, barter, trade and sell to one another.

Corrine Asturias' front yard vegetable garden produces an overabundance and shares the surplus with her neighbors.

Community

The intrinsic nature of farming in an urban or suburban setting creates opportunities for community interaction. When one family replaces their front lawn with a series of raised beds, it has a ripple effect. People peer over their neighbors’ fences and are intrigued. Some even get inspired and start their own vegetable gardens or mini urban farms.

These interactions are only the beginning of the benefits to the community. For example, the Marin Open Garden Project encourages backyard gardeners to bring the excess from your garden to exchange with other gardeners every Saturday in San Anselmo.

Jobs

Urban farming offers the promise of safe jobs that are local and sustainable to the millions of unemployed. Many of them are struggling to pay their mortgages and feel trapped to look for work within commute distance. Putting people back to work in urban farming jobs could be a boon to our economy and put millions of Americans back to work – work that is necessary, healthy and safe.

Unlike conventional large-scale farming, organic urban farming is small scale (even micro-scale), uses no heavy equipment, toxic pesticides or herbicides. Conventional agriculture is among the most hazardous of industries. Farmers are at high risk for fatal and nonfatal injuries, work-related lung diseases, noise-induced hearing loss, skin diseases, and certain cancers associated with chemical use. Farming is one of the few industries in which the families are also at risk for injuries, illness, and death.

Sustainability

Growing food close to where it will be prepared and consumed exemplifies the path to sustainability. The savings in fuel from not having to transport food from long distances is a compelling reason alone. Add to that, the energy needed to refrigerate and store perishables, and we’re talking significant reductions in carbon emissions.

Nutrition

Produce begins to loose nutritional value immediately after harvest. When food is grown close to home, the time between harvest and consumption is often reduced to mere hours rather than days or weeks. This maximizes the nutritional benefit.

There is also an unquantifiable value to growing your own vegetables or knowing the people who do. You feel connected to your community in a real way and often wind up eating a more healthy diet, while wasting less of this precious resource.

“I probably spend as much time working in my garden each day as I spend making coffee only it is a lot more interesting”, said Corrine Asturias about her front yard vegetable garden that used to be a dry, eye-sore of a front lawn.

Physical Activity

The modern lifestyle is one of convenience and reduced physical effort.

Our forefathers were far more physical than the average American is today. Thomas Jefferson, for one, worked long hours on his own personal farm at Monticello and considered himself to be “a man of the land”. He was an avid farmer and is considered to be one of America’s early agronomists.

Vegetable gardening and urban farming is a wonderful way for people of all ages and abilities to get daily exercise, sunshine and fresh air. Modern growing techniques allow us to grow far more produce in a smaller space and with much less effort than before.

People of all ages and backgrounds can benefit from just a short time spent in the garden. “I probably spend as much time working in my garden each day as I spend making coffee only it is a lot more interesting”, said Corrine Asturias about her front yard vegetable garden that used to be a dry, eye-sore of a front lawn.

Flint River Farm in Flint, Michigan, the city’s largest urban farm.

Conclusion

The Dowling Community Garden in Minneapolis, Minnesota is the last vestige of the original Victory Gardens from World War II.

Fortunately, there is a sea change on the horizon. Places like Flint, Michigan and Detroit are experiencing a Renaissance in the urban farming movement.  Michelle Obama’s digging up the front lawn of the White House to plant a Victory Garden of her own is reminiscent of Eleanor Roosevelt’s own Victory Garden as first lady.

Our nation is ready for a new approach to growing our own food. History is again our great teacher, as we rediscover the ways our ancestors worked the land, sustainably and for the betterment of society.

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MyPlate Symbolizes A New Health-Conscious Generation


Today June 2, 2011, is a turning point in our government’s attitude toward the “American diet”.

First Lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack unveiled the federal government’s new food icon, MyPlate, replacing the familiar and often confusing Food Pyramid that so many of us were used to growing up.

Most notably, the icon is a plate, which is a universal symbol in most cultures. The highlight is that half of the plate is covered with fruits and vegetables. This is a huge step toward creating a more health conscious population.

The sad truth is that currently, Americans are more obese than ever. According to the CDC’s 2009 statistics, overall obesity in the United States is 26.7%. Obesity was calculated based on self-reported weight and height and defined as body mass index (weight [kg] / height [m]2) ≥30. Some states actually ranked much higher than the average.

Childhood obesity rates are rising rapidly at a time where multiple factors are reducing the time that children spend engaging in physical activity. This is causing a never-before-seen class of children with early onset of childhood diabeties.

These trends all point to our nation’s health epidemic that is in full crisis mode. If you have any question, see http://forksoverknives.com/.

Proper Nutrition Is Only Half The Battle

The lack of daily exercise is one of the biggest factors contributing to America’s weight problems. People who live in Appalachia and the South are the least likely to be physically active in their leisure time. In many counties in that region, more than 29 percent of adults reported getting no physical activity other than at their regular job.

Although the new MyPlate icon doesn’t address the issue of exercise, it is an essential part of the solution to being more healthy. And later this year, the USDA will be launching an online tool that consumers can use to personalize and manage their dietary and physical activity choices. This is at least a start on reeducating the public on the need for creating a healthy lifestyle.

Essentially the USDA Guidelines reinforce these basic rules:

Balance Calories
• Enjoy your food, but eat less
• Avoid over-sized portions

Foods to Increase
• Make half your plate fruits and vegetables
• Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk
• Make at least half your grains whole grains

Foods to Reduce
• Compare sodium (salt) in foods like soup, bread, and frozen meals, and choose foods with lower numbers
• Drink water instead of sugary drinks

If you’re interested to read up on the details on the USDA’s programs, go to:

And if you, or someone you know is concerned about their weight, you can use this body mass index calculator below.
BMI For Adults Widget

Fruits & Vegetables

I am thrilled to know that part of the new health initiative includes a multi-year campaign with the message “Make Half Your Plate Fruits and Vegetables.” Getting people to eat them is, well – another story….

The social media aspect to this campaign is very interesting. They are encouraging people to take a photo of their plates and share on Twitter with the hash-tag #MyPlate. I’ll be tweeting my plate tonight from my account: @chrisripps if you’d like to follow.

The USDA is showing great public concern for our nation’s obesity epidemic, although they are not calling it that. However, what is needed is a “lifestyle overhaul”. People have been brainwashed into thinking that ‘fast food’ is cheap and convenient. What they don’t realize is that it’s cheap for a reason. It’s not so much food as it is filler that’s been pumped up to trick the taste buds into thinking it’s food.

Fast Food Is Pure Evil

Why is fast food so cheap? Because our government has been giving BILLIONS of dollars in subsidies to the corn and soybean farmers.

The fiscal 2011 Farm Bill contained crop subsidies as the largest federal agricultural spending item.  This years Farm Bill proposes to take a total of $2.7 billion (13.4%) out of the food and agriculture budget including steep cuts to: Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program (SARE), The Renewable Energy for America Program (REAP) and farm conservation funding programs.

Until our government gets truly serious about our food policies and embraces a total solution, I believe that most of the needed changes will come from grassroots and non-profit organizations working together with local communities.

Please support you local farmers and buy from farmers markets and CSAs whenever you can!

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