Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Garden at the Back of the School

In the January/February issue of The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan let's it fly. Her target? The Edible Schoolyard program created and sanctified by Alice Waters.

Two things I need to say up front:
1) Alice Waters works my nerves. Here's why (besides the hat): A long time ago I worked at a food web site and we had a live chat with Ms. Waters. This was in the mid-90s when seasonal cooking was just catching on. She said, "Everyone should buy organic produce. I'm willing to pay more for organic seasonal produce." I asked: "What if you can't afford more." At the time I could barely afford my trips to the Farmer's Market. Silence. Then Waters repeated that she herself was willing to pay more for organic food. Thanks! (That said, I love her book The Art of Simple Cooking.)

2) I'm a sucker for the promise of a school garden.

Every time I read an urban garden story, it's like I've been cleansed. My cheeks feel ruddy. I think about children learning to eat seasonally and I hope the earth might be saved. I might even yearn to shout: Yes we can! Even if just for old times' sake.

It seems to me, after reading Flanagan, that school gardens trade on our desperately earnest wish to get food right. It could be seen as part of a long upper middle brow tradition of fetishizing physical labor and DIYism. From Levin in Anna Karenina with his peasants and farms to any number of Sunday Times Magazine spreads about city folks who gave it all up to work the land, organically, there's a soft spot in our educated upper middle class hearts for people who not only grow food but by doing so teach us what's really important in life.

The school garden movement also taps into a very specific preciousness that has evolved around the cultural imperatives of a certain class in buying and making food. After all, we want to eat well. We want to eat right. We want to feel ourselves to be part of the food chain, the life cycle, the good protein. This is all good-and my tongue is nowhere near my cheek as I write this. But, if I want to get food right, do I believe gardens in schools will teach children how to be a part of the food chain and they'll grow up to be discerning eaters who respect the earth too much to be seduced by tomatoes in January?

I am very much a part of this line of thought, and Flanagan knows it. She does not flatter her reader as Nick Paumgarten tried to do in his New Yorker profile of the CEO of Whole Foods, John Mackey. Instead, Flanagan says what's so: In California, low income Hispanic and African American kids don't need to garden. They need to learn to read and write and do math. They need to pass state exams. They may garden after school, but during school an hour and a half a week in the garden followed by a gardening curriculum in English, Math and Science is too much. If it weren't, the test results of Hispanic and African American kids at schools with a garden would be better.

It may be that Flanagan puts too much stock in test results, even though in the neighborhood of Berkeley she's talking about the Hispanic and African American kids at a charter school without a garden have better test results than those at the school with Waters' very first edible schoolyard. State-wide tests are, after all, a limited and flawed measure of education. But in California, as elsewhere, they seem to matter. I don't think a school needs to drop everything in service of a test, but it might be that the children who are most at risk of dropping through the cracks of a public school system may not be so well served by the dreams of those who think of graduating from high school as an almost completely natural event that happens as spontaneously as learning to walk or, say, read.

It just may be that what I really need to clarify the whole school garden thing is a Christopher Guest documentary about the good folks starting one in a farming community in Iowa. That might be just the ticket. In fact, I'd buy mine opening weekend.

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