Last spring, my 22 year old daughter took to calling me every couple of days to report on the progress of her vegetable garden. Together, on the phone, we talked through the joys of sprouting seeds and tending tiny, vulnerable plants and the trials of root weevils and freak hailstorms. This was not only a miraculous occurrence because I was being sought out so regularly by my newly independent offspring, but also because this was the child who had informed me on many occasions throughout her youth that she was, in fact, allergic to gardening. Her interests ran in many different directions and no matter how much I prompted her, she was not a gardener. So, as conversions often are, hers was profound and complete.
At one point during the summer, she told me that the feeling she got from growing the food that would nourish her body was so very different than anything she imagined, that she never believed she could feel so strongly connected to the living earth. She lived for the excitement of seeing the changes (daily!) in her little plot of land.
I've thought often about this development and how it fits into the picture of our changing relationship with the food we eat. The issues of food security, food safety, hunger worldwide and locally, obesity and food deserts that are the scourge of poverty in this country, ecological destruction caused by greed, corporatization of agriculture and the loss of family farming as a way of life; all of these are part of the complicated and often disheartening complex of problems that we face nationally as we strive to feed ourselves.
In very recent years, our "food literacy" has increased, with offerings from authors like Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma). These books help us frame the questions about our food supply system. Where does our food come from? Who's growing it and with what methods, how is it being processed and delivered to us? What are the ecological and social justice impacts of the food choices we make? We begin to see that we can act with intention; we can effect change, even if we don't quit our day jobs and become full time activists or join the Peace Corp. We can plant some seeds.
Municipalities are beginning to support innovative ways that people have devised for growing healthy food in urban areas. Rooftop farms and vacant lots transformed into community vegetable plots are sprouting up from Florida to the Pacific Northwest. The City of Seattle is a leader in this movement. In August 2010, the city council revised the city codes to accommodate more urban agriculture within city limits. Chicken coops and apiaries are no longer alien species to Seattleites.
On our own campus, there are opportunities to try out vegetable growing in raised beds. These gardens are a great way to engage with other SU members and the general public as well. Working in the garden never fails to solicit interest and smiles from passersby. Here's what Kate Kelly of Conference and Event Services said about her experience: "I grew up in Vermont and I never really knew how much I would miss certain things when I moved out here ten years ago. I moved to the Hill about three years ago, giving up my apartment on Greenlake with a yard. These pea patches have been not only such a great bonding experience for my staff, but also a great way for me to remember my childhood."
For students in particular, this is important work. They face a very uneasy future. Growing something to eat is a way to have some control over your life, perhaps at a time when it feels like there's not much else in your control. It's also a tool for teaching others, a springboard for rethinking a broken system, an incubator for inventive ideas about food security for future generations.
So as we move into a new season, with all the hopes that springtime never fails to bring, I'll leave you with this final thought from sustainable food champion Michael Pollan:
"But the act I want to talk about is growing some - even just a little - of your own food. Rip out your lawn, if you have one, and if you don't-if you live in a high-rise, or have a yard shrouded in shade-look into getting a plot in a community garden. Measured against the Problem We Face, planting a garden sounds pretty benign, I know, but in fact it's one of the most powerful things an individual can do - to reduce your carbon footprint, sure, but more important, to reduce your sense of dependence and dividedness: to change the cheap-energy mind."
Here's to a vital garden!
Janice Murphy is integrated pest management coordinator in Grounds and a regular contributor to The Commons.