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School garden programs are vital to students' education and health

By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, February 11, 2010; PG11

Caitlin Flanagan, writing in the current issue of the Atlantic, imagines a scene in which a poor Mexican immigrates to California to do farm work in hope of a better life for his son, only to have him wind up in Alice Waters's Edible Schoolyard garden.

To some, this might seem no more than a small irony of modern life: one person's effort to escape from the land meets with another's mission to reconnect us with it. But to Flanagan, it is a place to launch her scorn for Waters's project and the prodigious movement it has spawned.

School gardens have popped up all over California and beyond, she laments, robbing children of time spent "reading important books or learning higher math," achievements that have "lifted uncounted generations of human beings out of the desperate daily scrabble to wrest sustenance from the dirt." So the Mexican sixth-grader arrives at his new school, "then heads out to the field, where he stoops under a hot sun and begins to pick lettuce."

Flanagan knows little about the school's program. When I visited, I saw neither a "field" nor "child farm laborers," only a student-built garden, a kitchen classroom, an inspired team of instructors and a bunch of well-behaved kids excited by what they were learning. It's not easy to attack a program that gets children to eat healthy food, learn teamwork and like school, so Flanagan trivializes it. She does her best to evoke contempt for dirt, for farms, for manual labor and even for the type of educated woman who "tends to light, midway through life's journey, on school voluntarism as a locus of her fathomless energies."

But consider the implications of Waters's simple but ultimately radical idea: If every child in America were taught to prefer homegrown food to industrial food, that would shake our economy end to end. (Ultimately, of course, it would help business by reducing the cost of health benefits.) Yes, test scores are important for economic advancement. But learning to feed yourself is empowering, too.

Let's bury the stereotype of the humble farmer, scratching away in the fields, oblivious to the world of big ideas. It's going to take some very smart farmers and some very big ideas to fix the mess our food system is in right now. The government isn't fixing it. The universities aren't fixing it. For the most part, they're taking us further down a dead-end road to quantity at the expense of quality and sustainability.

But outside the city limits, farmers are studying ways to turn things around, to produce better food without poisoning the soil, without threatening diversity and without emitting the vast amount of greenhouse gases that are agriculture's share -- to do it independently, profitably and without social exploitation. Increasingly, young women and men, many of them well educated, are deciding they want to farm.

My husband spent a decade teaching at a school where the curriculum included food-growing, along with all the regular subjects. One day he was explaining to a student how to square the site for a new greenhouse by using the Pythagorean theorem. "You mean, you can use that?" the boy asked. In such a way are the seeds of the future planted.

Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of "The Garden Primer."

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